The Raiders have the salary-cap flexibility and draft picks required to significantly upgrade a talent-deficient defense. That unit was 30th in rushing, 19th against the pass and dead freaking last in points allowed.
Coordinator Paul Guenther needs more frontline talent and depth on his side of the ball, though there are a few members of the 2018 defense that will be counted on again next season.
Let’s take a look at the defensive starting lineup up as it stands heading into the offseason, and whether the Raiders can write those players in pencil, ink or a series of question marks where a name should be:
NT: Justin Ellis (ink)
DT: Maurice Hurst (ink)
DE: Arden Key (pencil)
Sub-package help: DT P.J. Hall (pencil)
The Raiders will be looking for upgrades across the defensive line, making it hard to put many names down with certainty. Both edge-rushing spots are up for grabs, with one vacant and likely filled by a veteran or high draft pick.
Key’s at the other end spot right now, but another import could take that spot as well. The LSU product could be an impactful situational pass rusher while developing skills, but was forced to play beyond that role. Dialing things back might be in his best interest.
The Raiders like Hurst a great deal, and have Ellis ready for the base defense. Another interior lineman could join the rotation, or even compete for serious snaps. The Raiders must get better up front, especially off the edges, and should spend significant capital to do so.
SLB: Marquel Lee (pencil)
WLB: Tahir Whitehead (ink)
Jason Cabinda and Nick Morrow are available – Cabinda’s an exclusive rights free agent but should be back -- to assume the middle linebacker spot they manned last season. Both guys had solid moments working in a platoon, but an upgrade seems to be the right call here.
The Raiders could use a higher draft pick to get a middle linebacker, or bring in a veteran in free agency. Competition seems a necessary addition at the very least, though outright presumptive starter is the way to go. Lee performed well after moving to the strong side from the middle, but that position doesn’t play a ton with defenses in sub packages so often. His name’s still in pencil in case the Raiders snag an athletic edge rushing type who would play strongside linebacker and move to the line in sub packages.
The Raiders defense has lots of issues, and Whitehead isn’t anywhere near the top of the list. The veteran should return to the three-down role he held in 2018.
CB: Gareon Conley (ink)
SS: Karl Joseph (ink)
Slot: Nick Nelson (pencil)
Conley will own one cornerback spot. Daryl Worley is expected to man the other, but we can't put him down yet. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason, and while the Raiders want to bring him back, there’s no telling what the open market will bear and whether the Raiders will match any offer or offer a high-round contract tender. There is a strong, belief, however, that Worley will be back.
Joseph showed great improvement down the stretch, and should be given an opportunity to develop further and bring physicality to the defense while attempting to be more of a big-play maker.
Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson are unrestricted free agentd and Erik Harris is restricted. Harris will likely return, but the Raiders should still look for an upgrade here in the starting lineup, either through free agency or the draft. ... Coaches like Nelson, who struggled some after losing valuable development time recovering from an offseason knee injury.
The Raiders could bring in some competition there, even as cornerback depth with Rashaan Melvin not expected back. A versatile corner could challenge and/or push Nelson over the spring and summer.