For the first time in several years, the Las Vegas Raiders are investing in the middle of their defense and doing it with a division foe in mind.
It’s been a long time since the Las Vegas (then Oakland) Raiders invested in the middle of their defense. In fact, you have to go back to 2010 for the last time the positions contained therewithin were a priority enough for the team to invest a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
That year, Al Davis and the Raiders selected Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Rolando McClain and rewarded him with $40 million contract over 5 years. McClain only lasted three seasons before his performance on the field sputtered and his off-the-field troubles were enough for the Raiders to say goodbye as they released him on April 5, 2013.
Fast forward to the Mike Mayock-led Raiders front office and things are changing – and changing fast.
This offseason, Mike Mayock, and coach Jon Gruden, have been active participants in free agency giving their defense a much-needed facelift. Singed thus far have been a pair of playmaking linebackers in Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins, defensive lineman Carl Nassib, and safeties Jeff Heath and Damarious Randall. All of these players show a measured approach and discipline which bodes well for the Raiders.
Front and center in all of this free agent activity is the investment in the middle of the Raiders porous defense. Not only was the team devoid of enough talent there, but as members of the AFC West, they had to make it a priority to keep up with the hated – but class of the division – Kansas City Chiefs.
“How many times have I been on our show and talked about the inability to stop Travis Kelce,” Scott Bair, longtime Raiders reporter on NBC Sports Net Bay Area told me on our Sunday show. “He’s a Raider killer, right? They can’t cover running backs and they can’t cover tight ends. But, guess what: now they can cover running backs and tight ends well.”
And that’s why the Raiders early moves were so vital to their future success. Yes, they still could pick up a young linebacker in the draft, but the moves they made now certainly give them quality upgrades and a defensive middle already much better than it was over the past several seasons.
“What amazes me is the lack of investment (before) in the linebacker position,” Bair said. ” Since McClain, they haven’t taken a linebacker before the fourth round and they didn’t give anyone a contract over $18 million over the course of three years.”
But the past is the past and clearly Mike Mayock knew it and hit it hard as soon as the new NFL year began.
With opposing tight ends in the AFC West including Kelce, Los Angeles’ Hunter Henry, and Denver’s Noah Fant, linebackers who can cover from sideline-to-sideline like Littleton are a necessity if you plan to ever win the division. Clearly Mayock and Gruden have their eyes on the right prize and the addition of WLB Littleton and then MLB Kwiatkoski gives them an instant three-down pair for the long haul. This group can grow together and be the anchor of a middle which will play those talented tight ends tightly.
It wasn’t only at linebacker where the Raiders weakness in the middle became a strength. A sneaky-good get was Collins to play inside and upfront for Las Vegas. At just 24 years old, the talented inside disruptor would have led the Raiders in pressures last year and he’ll be the starter from Day 1.
In Dallas in 2019, Collins had four sacks, 35 tackles, and 10 quarterback hits. He’s a stout addition up the middle of the defense and brings a versatility the Raiders haven’t had there recently.
Collins’ ability to stuff the run, and break double teams (overall 65.1 score last season according to Pro Football Focus) means he’ll move ahead of Mo Hurst and Jonathan Hankins who can both spell Collins and rotate around the front. The addition of Collins in the middle will make everyone around him better shoring up this unit that still needs to develop some depth.
Even with this massive spending spree in free agency to address the defensive deficiencies, the Raiders freed up more cap space by restructuring Rodney’s Hudson’s contract and look to remain active heading into this month’s “virtual” NFL Draft.
While the focus on wide receiver and cornerback – the Raiders two most glaring needs remaining as they head into the draft – will be there, the ability to now have the flexibility to pick, trade or sign who they need to in order to address those needs.
Many misinformed fans and observers like to take shots at the Raiders for being “cash poor” but in reality, Mike Mayock is running a clinic on how to be prudent with your dollars and has efficiently addressed the team’s most pressing needs on defense.
Mike Mayock’s approach, and the team’s strategic investment in getting talent at a great price in the middle of the defense, will most certainly pay dividends this coming season.
What do you think? How well did the Raiders do addressing the needs in the middle of their defense?