General manager Mike Mayock has been candid about the Raiders’ defensive deficiencies, especially in a press conference at the NFL scouting combine.
He wasn’t just complaining about the problem. Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden executed an aggressive plan to fix it. The Raiders added several established veteran free agents, especially through the middle of the defense, to improve a unit that hasn’t been good enough in recent years.
The Raiders are much more talented heading into the 2020 campaign, though an upgrade or two could complete what has been a solid offseason to this point.
Let’s take a look at the current state of the Raiders defense, an analysis that pairs well with Friday’s edition of the Raiders Insider podcast. You can find that below, on our NBC Sports Bay Area/California YouTube channel or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, check out our Josh Schrock’s ranking of the top 20 Raiders defensive players.
Here’s our positional breakdown, where they’re set and where the Raiders need some help.
Starters: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell
Top reserves: Carl Nassib, Arden Key
State of the position: Crosby was a revelation last year, finishing second in defensive rookie of the year voting. He hit double-digit sacks and proved a far better run defender than people thought. Ferrell had some setbacks in his rookie season – he lost 15 pounds with the flu before midseason – and performed below expectations associated with his draft slot. He has vowed to be better in 2020 and has the work ethic required to make great leaps. Nassib’s a versatile weapon an upgrade over 2019 situational pass rusher Benson Mayowa, though he doesn’t come cheap. Nassib also is a solid run defender who can also operate as a stand-up rusher. Key has talent and bend but hasn’t performed well in games to this point.
Help wanted?: Another edge rusher couldn’t hurt, even if it’s just a situational player later in the NFL draft, but the group will be fine even without another impact player.
Starters: Johnathan Hankins, Maliek Collins
Top reserves: Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall, Daniel Ross
State of the position: Collins makes the interior much, much better. He has the interior pass-rush ability lacking for the Silver and Black in recent seasons, which is vital to the success of Paul Guenther’s defensive scheme. Collins would’ve led the Raiders in quarterback pressures in 2019 and has excelled battling through double teams. He’ll help those around him, making the entire line better. Hankins is a solid run defender and Hurst will have a significant role in the rotation, especially in the sub-packages. Hall will be pushed by others in the group.
Help wanted?: Collins takes the edge off this need, but the Raiders could use one more piece to this puzzle. The former Dallas Cowboy is working on a one-year deal and Hankins has a season left on his deal, so adding another player would help the 2020 group and provide some help in future seasons.
Starters: MLB Nick Kwiatkoski, WLB Cory Littleton, SLB Marquel Lee
Top reserves: Nick Morrow, Kyle Wilber
State of the position: Adding Kwiatkoski and Littleton to the group makes linebacker a team strength. They should pair as three-down linebackers. Lee could man the strong side, but he comes off frequently for a defensive back. Morrow has experience at both interior spots and is a quality backup who could start at any linebacker position if required.
Help wanted?: The Raiders are set here in the short and long term, something unusual for a Raiders franchise that has struggled to find proper fits at the position.
Starters: Trayvon Mullen, Isaiah Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner
Top reserves: Nevin Lawson, Keisean Nixon
State of the position: Mullen’s a long-term solution at one cornerback spot. Joyner’s solid in the slot, where the Raiders prefer him to play. Johnson’s still raw after losing much of his rookie year to a concussion and facial fracture suffered in the preseason. Lawson has tons of starting experience and Nixon is a valuable backup. All that said, the Raiders were looking for a top cornerback to start opposite Mullen and still don’t have that player. Eli Apple would’ve been the frontrunner to play outside, but his deal fell apart this week and he’s now back on the open market.
Help wanted?: The Raiders need a top cornerback in the draft. Like, really bad. They could and probably should use the No. 12 or 19 selection on a plug-and-play cornerback and complete the position group. They could use Randall there if nobody else seizes the job, but free safety seems like a better fit for him.
Starters: Johnathan Abram, Damarious Randall
Top reserves: Jeff Heath, Erik Harris
State of the position: If Randall ends up playing safety as expected, this group suddenly is stout. Abram has a lot to prove but has great potential as a physical tone-setter. Randall could free him to be aggressive with his ability at free safety, though he can move around and do a lot of things well. Heath and Harris have extensive starting experience and are solid reserves. They could fill in well in case of injury or if Randall’s needed at cornerback, where he spent the first three years of his NFL career.
Help wanted?: The Raiders could’ve used another safety before Randall arrived, Now that he’s committed to the Silver and Black, the position’s a great shape.