Raiders hope additions, wolf-pack mentality improve pass rush in 2019

Raiders hope additions, wolf-pack mentality improve pass rush in 2019

NAPA – After signing with the Raiders in March, linebacker Brandon Marshall watched film of last year’s defense extensively in an effort to better learn his role for the upcoming season. Most of it wasn’t pretty, but Marshall quickly identified one glaring weakness that set the unit on a downward spiral.

“We had 13 sacks last year,” Marshall said. “I don’t care what DBs you have. Those guys can’t survive if the pressure’s not there. We have to create more pressure up front. We have to stop the run and play tighter coverage. We have to form an identity on defense.”

Marshall listed four ways to improve the defense, but the top priority’s crystal clear. The Raiders must get better rushing the pass. The 2018 Raiders didn’t have enough talent up front or enough options at a position where rotation is key. Fresh bodies are needed to rush the passer, which requires maximum effort on every play.

Take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line during their currently dominant era, or the Seattle Seahawks before that. They had guys moving in and out.

Last year, the Raiders line was fixed. With Khalil Mack traded and Bruce Irvin falling out of favor and eventually being cut, the Raiders didn’t have much.

“We had a base [defense line] and a nickel line, and they were the same guys,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Now we have guys who can roll in fresh off the bench, playing 25-30 snaps pre game and give you good reps. We’re not having everybody playing first, second and third down. The more you can bring in waves of rushers, the better you’ll be.”

Maurice Hurst was one of those linemen weathering a difficult 2018, and one of the few able to generate pressure on the quarterback. There’s a different feel in this camp, with several expected to join the fight.

“I think we have a legitimate two deep right,” Hurst said. “We’re all helping, and we’re all going to play important roles going forward.”

Guenther will experiment with combinations up front this summer, but early bets are lining Josh Mauro, Johnathan Hankins, Justin Ellis and Clelin Ferrell up in the base defense. The sub packages will mix, but Ferrell, Maurice Hurst and Hankins/PJ Hall could be staples in the nickel, with Arden Key and Maxx Crosby coming in to help.

A truly dominant, Mack-esque pass rusher isn’t on this roster – in fairness, we have no idea what Ferrell will be in the short or long term – meaning sacks will have to come from the entire crew. One player (or two) can’t always save the day.

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A pack mentality will be key here, with contributions mandatory from last year’s draft picks (Hurst, Hall and Key) and this year’s crew, namely Ferrell and Crosby.

“There is that voice in your head reminded you that we didn’t do that well last year,” Hurst said. “That’s motivation for us as players, and it makes the D-line want to do better and push each other every single play.”

Why Nick Kwiatkoski thought Raiders were 'best fit' in NFL free agency

Why Nick Kwiatkoski thought Raiders were 'best fit' in NFL free agency

Nick Kwiatkoski doesn’t have a massive social media following, but a tweet the veteran linebacker sent out on March 16 quickly went viral.

It didn’t include a single word. It contained a picture of Allegiant Stadium and nothing more, but it was a clear sign that the Las Vegas Raiders had landed their first unrestricted free agent while representing their new market.

Sources later confirmed Kwiatkoski agreed to join the Silver and Black on a three-year, $21 million contract, showing the Raiders were serious about upgrading a long deficient linebacker corps.

The deal came together quickly, on the first day of free agency’s open negotiating window, because Kwiatkoski loved what the Raiders had to say. He would join the Raiders as a full-time, three-down middle linebacker.

“I felt that I’ve earned that spot, and that’s something I looked for in free agency,” Kwiatkoski said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area, available in its entirety on the Raiders Talk Podcast. “When they told me that, it was very appealing.”

That wasn’t the only reason the former Chicago Bear signed with the Raiders.

“They called very early and, when I spoke to them, it was very clear there’s an excitement around the whole organization with the move to Las Vegas,” Kwiatkoski said. “That was one of a number of reasons why I [made my decision]. When we played them in London last year and I just loved the mentality they brought to the game where they come right at you. With their defensive scheme, I thought I’d fit right in. I gave it some time and took some other calls, but I ended up thinking the Raiders were the best fit for me.”

There was some thought he’d fit in well as the Bears’ middle linebacker, but that prospect was eliminated when Danny Trevathan signed a contract extension on March 9. Kwiatkoski proved worthy of a starting gig after taking over following Trevathan’s season-ending elbow injury in Week 9.

There was no going back after an excellent eight-game stretch that included 58 tackles, two sacks and interception. Especially, not with teams ready to court him on the open market and make him a major player.

While those numbers look solid, the clip below shows exactly what the Raiders are getting in Kwiatkoski, and he doesn’t even record a stat.

Kwiatkoski put Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook on his back during a Week 4 win over the Vikings, blowing up a play with raw power and aggression.

“That’s an example of how I enjoy playing. I like being physical, going downhill,” Kwiatkoski said. “That’s how I have always played, and I plan on continuing to do that.”

He’ll do that with the Silver and Black, while paired with fellow free-agent addition Cory Littleton.

“He’s a great linebacker,” Kwiatkoski said. “To be able to line up with him and call him my teammate is going to be fun.”

The former LA Ram is a true sideline-to-sideline presence and an excellent coverage linebacker, a perfect complement to Kwiatkoski’s strength going downhill as a run defender and blitzer. The former high school safety, who converted to linebacker at West Virginia, also is confident in coverage and running a defense from the middle linebacker spot.

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Chicago’s fourth-round draft pick back in 2016 always has worked hard and capitalized on opportunities when presented, helping him earn a lucrative deal with a Raiders team counting on him to be a consistent playmaker. Earning this opportunity certainly is a point of pride as he moves on to the next chapter of his career.

“There were definitely times where I got down on myself after certain things happened, but to see how it has all played out … for me, no matter what my role was or what the situation was, I just put my head down and kept working,” Kwiatkoski said. “For that to all payoff is really gratifying. You can only control what you can control, and that’s what I focused on. I never lost sight of my goals. No matter what my role was, I was determined to work like a starter and play each day like it’s my last. For it to work out the way it has, with this new opportunity, it’s really gratifying.”

Raiders restructure Rodney Hudson's contract to create 2020 cap space

Raiders restructure Rodney Hudson's contract to create 2020 cap space

The Raiders took on a bit more salary in free agency than they were legally allowed, but restructured center Rodney Hudson’s massive contract to get back under the NFL salary cap.

The team’s cap and contracts people got creative with the deal, obtained by ESPN on Wednesday morning, to provide relief in 2020 and push increased cap hits down the road where they have more flexibility.

The Raiders converted $11.6 million of Hudson’s base salary into a signing bonus, freeing up $9.28 in cap space for 2020. His cap hits will go up $2.32 million in subsequent seasons, which includes two voidable years at the end of the deal to spread out his cap hits.

The Silver and Black had to do that now to get Carl Nassib’s deal in while staying under the cap. He’s set to make $25 million over three years, with a $7.75 million cap hit in 2020, per

After factoring in the Nassib deal, the Hudson restructure and some other small additions, OTC reports the Raiders have $5.214 million in cap space. They might have to make another cap adjustment down the road, with $9.408 million required to pay their draft picks as currently slotted. They won’t have to make that move until later in the spring and summer, when they start signing draft picks.

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The Raiders own the Nos. 12 and 19 overall selections, with three third-round picks and one each in the fourth and fifth rounds.

Hudson signed a long-term contract extension last season worth $33.7 million over three years, with $24.4 million guaranteed. Moving money around helps the Raiders stay right with the cap without hurting future standing and keeping all the talent the Raiders currently employ.