The Raiders have employed a steady string of underwhelming linebackers either well past their prime or lacking the talent to excel in today’s NFL. The position has been a weakness for years now, with the team unwilling to invest significant funds or high NFL draft picks to upgrade the position.
That was particularly odd with head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton guiding the defense and general manager Reggie McKenzie in charge of personnel, considering they all manned the position as players.
Current defensive coordinator Paul Guenther also played linebacker in college and coached the position before coordinating defenses and values a position he trusts with significant responsibilities running his scheme.
The Vontaze Burfict experiment didn’t work out, leaving the Raiders back at the starting point with linebacker as a team weakness.
The Raiders didn’t mess around with the position this offseason, offering two of the three biggest free-agent contracts this offseason to Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. Those two should pair well together as true three-down linebackers capable of defending the run and pass well.
Those signings turned a pronounced weakness into a team strength in terms of talent. Littleton’s a true sideline-to-sideline presence and was the best coverage linebacker on the market. Kwiatkoski proved a starting-caliber middle linebacker when given the opportunity last year and is more of a thumper against the run with an ability to function well in coverage.
Their on-field presence will prove vital to an improved Raiders defensive effort. What they’re doing now, when practices are not permitted might be equally important.
The Raiders, like every other NFL team, are immersed in a virtual offseason program focused on meetings conducted via video conference while players remain away during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
While some Raiders already have assembled in the Las Vegas area and are working out in small groups, most are getting physically prepped on their own.
This mental work, especially mastering Guenther’s system, is vital for two new players charged with orchestrating it from the middle of a defense that could feature six new starters.
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Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot and call signals for Guenther, who heaps tons responsibility on his middle linebacker. That player must be a true field general, an extension of Guenther, as Burfict was when available to the Raiders in 2019 and for years before that in Cincinnati.
That excellent working relationship was built over time. Kwiatkoski especially must get up to speed quickly and capitalize on the opportunities to apply it in practice. He won’t have OTAs available to do that. They have been canceled due to the ongoing public health crisis, with ESPN reporting this week that players won’t be permitted back in team facilities until training camp despite coaches being allowed in starting Friday.
Being able to understand, apply and execute Guenther’s scheme is as vital as anything for a 2020 Raiders team that spent heavily on defense during free agency. Chemistry must be built quickly to avoid early-season pratfalls that will hurt a realistic opportunity to make the AFC playoffs for just the second time since the 2002 season. The margin for error isn’t big enough to account for missed opportunities even in September.
The unit must also operate as one quickly, something we didn’t see last year with blown coverages and miscommunication occurring too often in early losses.
Forming cohesion doesn’t just fall on Kwiatkoski and/or Littleton. Guenther and his position coaches must get the effort rolling with productive virtual meetings. The entire defense, led by returning members of an overhauled group, will play a part in how well they play together.
Making proper calls and checks from the heart of this Raiders defense and ensuring good communication with the line and the defensive backfield is essential to a productive start. The Raiders brought in a pair of smart, talented linebackers in their prime to help get that job done. It may be a bit harder due to the unique offseason, but they’re certainly up to the task.