Raiders

Raiders should add dynamic, ballhawk safety in free agency or NFL draft

hahacd.png
USATSI

Raiders should add dynamic, ballhawk safety in free agency or NFL draft

Editor's note: The Raiders season isn't over, but we'll keep one eye on the future with our weekly series on the team's biggest needs heading into 2019 and how voids can be filled best. This week's focus is on the secondary.

The Raiders are still trying to add to their secondary, even heading into Week 17.

Oakland recently tried to pick up embattled safety D.J. Swearinger up on waivers. Washington cut the talented, yet opinionated feather-ruffler after he criticized coaching after a loss to Tennessee on Dec. 22, but the Raiders’ high waiver priority still wasn’t good enough to get him.

The Arizona Cardinals have the top waiver spot in the NFL with their 3-12 record, and snatched up a Pro Bowl alternate with an affordable 2019 salary.

It’s also a sign that, despite improved safety play of late, the Raiders are still looking to upgrade the position.

While other stories in this series focusing on Raiders offseason needs have focused on complete overhauls, the Silver and Black could use one dynamic upgrade to compliment what they already have. A ball hawk, in particular, would help this group.

They didn’t seem to have much early in the year, but Karl Joseph’s emergence has changed that opinion. The team’s 2016 first-round pick has added aggressiveness in the box and on the back end, and has played well as a roving chess piece. He has become a three-down player, and has impressed a coaching staff unsure about him as this regular season began.

Erik Harris and Marcus Gilchrist have been solid and versatile, but another ball-hawking talent could upgrade a strong, young and promising Raiders secondary.

Let’s take a look at this Raiders need, and how it can be filled in 2019:

Players likely to stay in 2019

Karl Joseph: The Raiders were shopping the West Viriginia alum around the trade deadline, and they’re probably happy they didn’t deal him. Joseph has played far better in recent weeks, with physical play that was his trademark in college. He has been an impactful pass rusher, with an ability to play the run well without being a liability in coverage. He isn’t the tallest defensive back, but he’s serviceable in coverage and should step in at strong safety, allowing the Raiders to focus on solving more pressing problems.

Erik Harris: The third-year pro is a restricted free agent this offseason after getting his first opportunity to play extended defensive snaps. That total has gone up, and he has had some good moments in reserve or part of a rotation. He could be impactful in a similar role next season as well. Assuming, of course, his market remains low and the Raiders can retain him.

Dallin Leavitt: The undrafted rookie spent most of this season on the practice squad, before getting promoted last week. He should get a chance to compete for a roster spot next offseason.

Players likely to go

Marcus Gilchrist: The veteran defensive back pulled in roughly $4.5 million on a one-year deal, but will re-enter the open market next spring. He’s a solid field general and has good moments, but he might be allowed to leave for an draft pick or higher-priority free agent to take his spot. Gilchrist’s versatility is as asset, as we saw last week when he primarily played slot cornerback after manning the safety spots all year.

Reggie Nelson: The 35-year old played a lot early in the year, but struggled as the season wore on and ended up on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, and isn’t expect back for a third contract with the Raiders.

Raiders potential offseason plan

Free agency: There’s an intriguing free-agent class ready to hit the market. Rams safety LaMarcus Joyner and Seattle’s Early Thomas will headline the group, though Joyner could be too pricey and Thomas might cost a pretty penny in addition to having some injury concerns.

Tyrann Mathieu won’t be cheap, but could bring the versatility required to assist at several different spots. It seems likely he stays in Houston.

Ha Ha Clinton Dix is another quality option and only 26, though Washington gave Green Bay a fourth round pick to rent him. One would imagine Washington would want to keep him, but a pricey contract offer could pry him away if he reaches the market. He’s a guy the Raiders could go after if they’re willing to spend on a safety and provide a veteran’s presence in an otherwise young secondary and put a larger body back there with Joseph.

Draft: Alabama safety Deionte Thompson has ideal size and speed as a patroller on the back end, and is frequently considered the best safety available. He’s the ballhawk the Raiders are looking for, seemingly a perfect fit. He could be had in the 20s, with one of the team’s extra first-round picks. Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a versatile piece who can play deep or in the slot. The Raiders like guys like that, and could get him in the second round. Miami’s Jaquan Johnson is also a highly-touted safety who can play in the box.

Washington’s Taylor Rapp and Delaware’s Nasir Adderley are also options who could be found outside the first round.

Bottom line: The Raiders need volume at several spots, but have some safeties already in the mix who could stay there in 2019. Adding a solid free safety, a good communicator who can intercept passes, seems like a necessity this time around. The NFL draft might provide some better and cheaper options to add to a young safety. An established free agent could, however, add veteran leadership to the group.

Take a look at other positions the Raiders must upgrade this offseason, as examined in our weekly series: 

Edge rushers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/why-raiders-should-look-edge-rushers-free-agency-2019-nfl-draft

Recievers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/raiders-must-use-2019-nfl-draft-free-agency-overhaul-wide-receiver-corps

Middle linebackers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/raiders-must-find-long-term-middle-linebacker-2019-free-agency-nfl-draft

NFL rumors: Raiders could be free-agent option for QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Raiders could be free-agent option for QB Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers and the Raiders have locked horns for the last 16 years.

But now that the veteran signal-callers time with the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers is over, could Rivers really turn in his powder blues for silver and black?

When discussing the 38-year-old's free-agent options Wednesday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport noted the Raiders could be an option for Rivers if the Indianapolis Colts don't bring him in.

Alright, the Tom Brady rumors I understand. He's the GOAT, and if he wants to come, you agree to accelerate the rebuild and make it happen

But Rivers? No shot. Zero. Zilch. Not gonna happen.

First of all, Rivers looked completely and utterly washed last season for the Bolts. Yes, he racked up the yards (4,615) but he also threw 20 interceptions and looked pretty awful in both of his showings against the Raiders, who weren't exactly trotting out the '85 Chicago Bears on defense.

We also seem to forget that Derek Carr is the starting quarterback and is coming off an efficient season that saw the Raiders sitting at 6-4 through 10 games. A lack of weapons and Antonio Brown's preseason meltdown hampered Carr's overall production, but general manager Mike Mayock said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine that he was "pleased" with his quarterback. 

Mayock did, however, say the Raiders would look to upgrade any and all positions.

The keyword there is "upgrade." Rivers, at 38 and way over the hill and rolling into the valley, doesn't fit the description.

The Raiders are a young, rebuilding team hoping to take another step. Not a fully finished product in need of a competent quarterback to take them up a notch. And at this stage, Rivers certainly wouldn't be an upgrade over Carr.

[RELATED: Raiders should do whatever it takes to draft Isaiah Simmons]

If the Raiders do elect to move on from Carr, it will be for Brady. That's the list. They aren't going to trade up for Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. Teddy Bridgewater isn't coming to town.

It's Carr or Brady. Rivers isn't in the equation.

NFL Draft 2020: Isaiah Simmons is answer to Raiders' linebacker problem

NFL Draft 2020: Isaiah Simmons is answer to Raiders' linebacker problem

In the age of wide-open, versatile offenses, the Raiders' defense is being left in the dust.

The lack of premiere talent at linebacker is a key reason why. The Raiders put all their eggs in the Vontaze Burfict basket last season. He played solid for four games before being jettisoned for the rest of the season by the NFL after a questionable hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle. 

Even with Burfict on the field, the Raiders had no one to match up with opposing tight ends. They tried moving cornerback Daryl Worley inside against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, but he was bodied by Travis Kelce. The linebackers struggled in coverage no matter who it was against. Tahir Whitehead allowed a 150.5 passer rating when targeted, the worst number for an off-ball linebacker in the NFL.

In other words: The Raiders must address the linebacker position this offseason. They can't put it off any longer.

With two picks in the top 19, the Raiders will have a decision to make. Do they trade up to draft Clemson star Isaiah Simmons or do they lay back and choose between LSU's Patrick Queen and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray at No. 19? Or do they elect to go to free agency to pick up a linebacker and fill other needs in the draft?

Let's take a look at their draft options.

Isaiah Simmons: The Athletic Mutant

Simply put, Simmons is the perfect linebacker for the modern NFL. 

He's 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and can play all over the field. During his junior season at Clemson, Simmons recorded 299 snaps at inside linebacker, 262 at slot cornerback, 132 at free safety, 116 at outside linebacker and 100 at strong safety. Simmons is of the Derwin James mold but in a bigger package. He's Brian Urlacher with an extra gear.

Now, it's one thing to play all over the field and it's another to be effective at it. Simmons was incredible no matter where he was, especially when in coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Simmons earned an above-average coverage grade at every position he lined up at. During his career at Clemson, Simmons had a career coverage grade of 92.5 and only allowed 6 yards per target.

Perfect for the modern NFL, Simmons can cover tight ends, run sideline-to-sideline with running backs, blanket slot guys and make plays in the middle of the field as a safety.

He also was extremely effective at getting after the quarterback. Simmons pressured the passer on 32.9 percent of his rushes, the highest of any power-five defender.

In order for the Raiders to make him the lynchpin of their defense, they likely will have to trade up. 

If there's any doubt they are thinking about it, Mayock gushed about Simmons and his versatility Tuesday.

"You start looking at guys on offense who can play in the slot, running back, be H-backs, there's really not a label for them," Mayock said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "They are just either dynamic players or they are not. And then you start looking about trying to match up with those guys on defense and when you start looking in any division, particularly ours, and the tight ends that we have to play in our divisions. You kind of go, 'Who matches up? If we want to play man coverage who can match up with those type of guys? The big guys that run fast, who do we have?' 

"I think more and more defenses around the league are saying who are the guys you don't have to put a label on, but they are dynamic football players? Isaiah Simmons, he's played in the back end, he's played at linebacker, he's come off the edge and really the only limitations on him are whatever the defensive coordinator puts on him."

Patrick Queen: The Fast Riser

Queen was a star in his first season as a starter in Baton Rouge, La. Built more like a safety at 6-1, 227 pounds, Queen has the sideline-to-sideline range to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL.

Some teams might want to see more film from Queen, but he was a key cog in LSU's title run, making countless plays during the Tigers' historic run. He's physical, athletic, fluid and intelligent and has drawn comparisons to 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander.

He has the skill set to be an immediate starter as a rookie either as a MIKE or WILL and looks to be a dynamic playmaker who won't have to come off the field in nickel packages.

Kenneth Murray: Plug And Play

The third and final first-round option at linebacker for the Raiders is Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray.

Murray is most successful as an off-ball linebacker who is allowed to pursue and wreak havoc. He's an athletic freak, who was prone to missed tackles before cleaning his technique up this past season.

While Murray has incredible range and can wreck an offense with his gap-shooting ability, the Oklahoma product's turn-and-run coverage skills are a work in progress. The range, athleticism and explosiveness have teams hoping he can polish up the rest of his game and be an every-down MIKE linebacker. Even if that doesn't work out, he should be able to be a solid three-down WILL at the NFL level.

[RELATED: Why Raiders shouldn't trade up for Herbert or Tua?]

Verdict

Simmons is projected to be drafted somewhere between No. 3 and No. 9 overall. The Raiders currently holding the No. 12 and No. 19 picks will watch the first few picks of the draft closely. If teams move up to draft quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, Simmons could slip a touch, giving the Raiders an opening to make a move up and get the guy who has all the skills to be one of their defensive leaders for the foreseeable future.

If the Raiders can swap the No. 12 pick, one their third-round picks (No. 80) and a future pick for the right to move up and snag the Clemson linebacker, it should be a no-brainer for Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden. Simmons will give them the dynamic player the defense has been missing and he would fit in seamlessly with the Clemson-esque culture the Raiders are trying to create.

Due to the deep class of wide receivers, the Raiders still would be able to get an electric weapon like Henry Ruggs at No. 19 overall.

If a deal can be made to bring Simmons to Las Vegas, the move is a no-brainer. A player of his caliber and skill set rarely comes along. Drafting him will be well worth the price.