The Las Vegas Raiders were busy early in the week and finished the first week of the new NFL year by signings eight free agents – most of them on defense. Looking at those signings, which will have the biggest impact?
Every year NFL teams enter the new year having holes to fill, depth to build and a shopping list which helps them get closer to the goal of winning a championship. The Las Vegas Raiders free agent signings were no different but out of the eight players signed this week, which will have the biggest impact?
In looking at the players general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden signed this week, it’s easy to see both agreed with most fans in Raider Nation the priority this offseason was shoring up a bad defense. iN 2019, the Raiders ranked 24th in points allowed for a team’s defense. Couple that with a low-scoring offense, and it spelled doom for realistic playoff chances last season.
Mayock and Gruden clearly prioritized adding veteran talent to their defense early in the free agency period. Here’s a look at the Top 3 signings with impact on the Raiders as they kickoff 2020 in Las Vegas.
Cory Littleton, LB
While cornerback Byron Jones may have been the big fish that got away for the Raiders, they landed another that will help remake their defense in former Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.
The Raiders needed help all over the defense but were a completely empty tank at the position heading into this offseason. Having released veteran Tahir Whitehead, who disappointed on the field in his two seasons in Oakland, and most likely moving on from the oft-suspended Vontaze Burfict, signing Littleton was virtually an imperative.
Cory Littleton’s ability in coverage was particularly a selling pint. According to Pro Football Focus, Littleton has played 1,200 coverage snaps and earned a PFF coverage grade of 87.3, which ranks second of all linebackers with 200 minimum snaps who entered the league in 2016. While he holds his own and is stellar in most packages, when playing as an off-the-ball defender last year in sub-packages in the Rams defenses, watching the film you see Littleton many times as the only linebacker on the field with up to six defensive backs. This speaks volumes to just how good he is in coverage and why it was imperative for the Raiders to go all-in on the 26-year old playmaker.
The move was essential especially when you look at the Raiders competition both in the AFC West, and in the rest of the conference. With Cory Littleton now in silver and black, Las Vegas actually has a chance to cover and contain players like Travis Kelce of the Chiefs, Hunter Henry of the Chargers, and other talented tight ends in the AFC.
The addition of Littleton was by far the most important of the team’s eight moves thus far.
Jason Witten, TE
The signing of 17-year veteran tight end Jason Witten surprised most of us but fans should rejoice the decision to bring him to Las Vegas.
With a young, talented and deep tight end group in Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, and Derek Carrier, signing an aging tight end seemed like an odd move. Yet Witten’s leadership, work ethic, and his declining but still viable abilities show an organization willing to make the investment to further develop what is a good group of players under contract.
After taking a year off to be the color analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, Witten returned to the Cowboys and had a very solid season. Witten nabbed 63 catches for 529 yards (8.4 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. While those numbers are nowhere near what they were in his prime, he’s going to be a great go-to tight end when used. Even with declining skills, he’s still a solid pro.
The influence Witten will have in what is already a tight and close tight end room, cannot be measured. In many ways, Witten will be a coach on the field for the young group and even a steady influence on the Raiders experienced but young quarterbacks in starter Derek Carr, and backup Marcus Mariota.
Marcus Mariota, QB
Since late last season, as the civil war over Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr raged, I held steadfastly he would be back and join the team in Las Vegas. Still, I felt he still struggled in certain circumstances and perhaps would be best served by the team bringing in a good backup to push him. My hypothesis: all professionals do their best when pushed and under competitive circumstances.
Now, enter former Heisman Trophy winner, and the second-overall draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Marcus Mariota. After his time in Tennessee ended as a backup to the surprising Ryan Tannehill, Mariota is looking to resurrect what has been a somewhat disappointing start to his career – but with some caveats. As Raiders fans know first-hand, young quarterbacks need stability and Mariota, like Carr, has had none. As a Titan, Mariota has had three head coaches and five offensive coordinators in his five seasons as a pro.
Mariota also sustained a late-season injury in Week 16 of the 2016 season when fractured his right fibula in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Mariota had his best season in 2016 (sound familiar?) finished with 3,426 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. That same season, Mariota rushed for two touchdowns and a career-high 349 rushing yards.
There’s no denying Mariota has the talent and ability to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Yet, in Las Vegas, he’s clearly going to be Carr’s backup going into but should push the starter. Mariota has much to prove and has been given a clean slate. Gruden now has a viable backup should Carr be injured or falter at any point. He possesses more ability to create with is feet and rush the ball. Like Taysom Hill of the Saints, Mariota may also give Gruden the option of using him in unique ways.
The signings of Mariota is important because he will push Carr, but the depth he brings to the quarterback position for the Raiders is incredibly valuable for a team looking to make the push into the playoffs in 2020.
And One More
Even though we didn’t rank it as a Top 3, we could have easily chosen the signing of Maliek Collins too. Collins will bring a whole lot of nasty to the interior of the Raiders defensive line and shore up that young squad. Although his arrival may signal the end is near for third-year pro PJ Hall, Collins presence inside is a huge upgrade for Las Vegas.
Collins is a rising star of a pass rusher and with a coin toss would make our Top 3 as well.
What do you think? Who are the three most important signings for the Raiders so far this offseason?