Any Given Monday: Raiders Defense Improved But Has Long Way to Go

Hayden Nadolny
gareon conley raiders defense

In last week’s edition in this space, we evaluated the potential for the Raiders offense in 2019. This week it’s time to evaluate the defense.

One word best describes the Raiders defense in 2018: abysmal

When defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was hired, much was made of the complexity is system would bring to the Raiders. In the offseason, Jon Gruden went heavy up on veterans to help be a stop-gap on a defense that was prone to mental mistakes under former coach Jack Del Rio. Those veterans were expected to be susceptible to mental miscues and they were. The downside was their physical capabilities. Those veteran signings were great in theory, but they weren’t successful enough on the field to improve a defense that seemed to slide backward.

The defensive rebuild started at last year’s draft where the Raiders selected defense throughout. PJ Hall,  defensive end Arden Key and interior defensive star Maurice Hurst. Of the three, Hurst showed the most promise on the interior of the line racking up four sacks and was a steady presence until late in the year when he injured his ankle.

Hall improved as the season went on, though at this stage of his career he should be a nice complimentary piece rather than someone who will see above 60% of defensive snaps per game.

Key really struggled his rookie year, though he was asked to do a lot more than initially expected of him due to the trading of Khalil Mack and then the release of Bruce Irvin. Had Key turned the majority of half-chances he had into sacks, he probably would have had seven or eight on the year. Getting into the weight room, bulking up and additionally increasing his functional strength is imperative for him to take the next step in his development.

No Rush Pass Rush?

maurice hurst raiders defense

Maurice Hurst shined during his rookie campaign.

The Raiders will continue to upgrade their pass rushing personnel in both free agency and the draft. There are plenty of prospects who could be selected high in this year’s draft, including Clelin Ferrell and Josh Allen. They could also draft an interior rusher such as Quinnen Williams. It’s hard to see the Raiders forking out a big contract to an edge rusher in free agency though considering that they could’ve given similar money to Mack. It remains a question mark if Justin Ellis returns, though the Raiders could possibly bring back Johnathan Hankins and Frostee Rucker back on minimum-type deals. Edge rusher Shilique Calhoun is one of special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia’s favorites and is one likely to get a chance to cement a role there next season as well.

In Search of…Linebackers

The linebacker play improved as the season progressed. Tahir Whitehead struggled early on in the season but had some solid games down the stretch and will be back in 2019. Veteran Derrick Johnson was out of his depth from the moment the season started and the team made the right move releasing the veteran to insert Marquel Lee into the lineup. Lee lacks the necessary sideline-to-sideline speed of a middle linebacker but he showed potential once he moved to Sam linebacker after the bye. Jason Cabinda and Nicholas Morrow saw their playing time also increase after the bye. They are both better suited as situational players as opposed to every-down starters. For too long the Raiders have lacked impact off-ball linebackers who can play all three downs. LSU linebacker Devin White could be available at one of the Raiders lower first round picks, or they could look to free agency and sign someone such as Jordan Hicks or Anthony Barr, who have played in a very similar defensive scheme to the Raiders system with Minnesota.

Secondary Comes Into Its Own

If there is a silver lining to take away from this season for the defense, it’s the performance of the secondary after the bye week.

The play of second-year corner Gareon Conley and safeties Karl Joseph and Erik Harris was enough to think that the Raiders have something to build on going into 2019. Conley was the pick of the bunch, looking every bit the shutdown corner he was at Ohio State. After being shopped at the trade deadline, Conley appears to be the No. 1 foundational piece of the defense to build around in the secondary.

Like Conley, Joseph was sparingly used early on in the year, with the coaches initially put off by his lack of size. Once his playing time increased, he steadily improved and was consistently laying the wood over the middle and in the box. Joseph still at times is a liability in coverage, but if paired with a top cover safety, such as Earl Thomas (via free agency), his deficiencies could be schematically minimized. Harris came into the season as a special teams ace but Jon Gruden was talking him up as a possibility to see significant playing time as early as mini-camp. Harris continued his off-season rise and by the end of the season, was a solid starter at safety. At the very least, he should be the third safety in Guenther’s system that can be used in situational matchups. At corner, one-year rental Rashaan Melvin struggled all season and won’t be back. Third-year corner Daryl Worley as someone who can be a long-term starter at the position opposite Conley. Leon Hall exceeded expectations and was a great mentor for rookie Nick Nelson. Nelson had a rough first year, where he spent the majority of his coverage snaps in the slot. He did have a knee injury that restricted his off-season though, so perhaps a full off-season to develop could see improved production in 2019. Jack of all trades Marcus Gilchrist is a free agent and though the coaches like his mental acuity, it’s questionable as to where he exactly fits in the scheme with the emergence in particular of Joseph and Harris.

We have seen over the years that unless a team’s defense is able to set the tone of a game in January, their team is not going to have much of a hope. There are some building blocks in place, but this really is the area where Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock need to focus on this off-season if the Raiders are to make a jump in the win column in 2019.

A Quote To Remember

“It’s like taking a dump. You got the job done … But if you don’t wipe, you ain’t finished.”

Clemson Tigers edge rusher and likely first round pick Clelin Ferrell on the importance of beating Alabama in the College Football National Championship game to cap off a perfect 15-0 season.

A Tweet of Amusement

2nd-and-7

Two Predictions:

1. At this point, how do you beat Kansas City in Kansas City in a cold weather game this week? It’s a near impossible task. That being said, the Patriots had a near-perfect performance against the Chargers this week. I believe the Chiefs have more talent but the Patriots have superior coaching. Brady once again to play in another Super Bowl.

2. The NFC Championship Game to me is a toss up. The Rams running game with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson is the most potent offensive weapon in football right now. It allows them to control the clock, and they have the blue-chip talent in their defensive secondary to force turnovers. But the Saints have my MVP of the season in Drew Brees and they have already beat the Rams this year in what was one of the games of the season. The Saints have home-field advantage and that may very well be the difference. Saints by a whisker.

Seven Things I Think:

1. The hiring of Kliff Kingsbury as the Arizona Cardinals new coach was about as bizarre as possible in terms of its process. Kingsbury had to resign from his offensive coordinator position at USC – a position he had held for barely a few weeks mind you, in order just to interview for his role in the NFL. That’s because USC athletic director Lynn Swann refused to let Kingsbury interview for the roles while under contract. USC has so many problems with their football program, though Swann may be the biggest of all. As for Kingsbury, Arizona made it known that he is friends with current Rams coach Sean McVay in their initial press release of the hiring. It shows the crazy lengths teams are going to be connected to the Rams young star offensive mind.

2. The majority of head coaching hires in the NFL has been on the offensive side of the ball. As said previously, teams are trying to emulate the hiring of McVay. This is in large part a testament to the late Al Davis, who was constantly looking to find the next great young offensive minded head coach. Davis was ahead of the game when he hired Mike Shanahan in the 80s, and he made Jon Gruden and Lane Kiffin the youngest head coaches in the league at the time. Also of note, McVay comes from Gruden’s coaching tree.

3. I’m perplexed and confused that teams have hardly even considered going with a defensive-minded leader for their head coaching position. History has shown that an elite defense with a complimentary offense wins championships, not the glitz and flash of a dynamic offense with a complimentary defense. Former Raiders linebacker coach and current Ravens defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is someone I’m staggered to see not even get an interview for a potential head coach opening. Baltimore’s defense is as good as any, and if they had a half decent QB (no, Lamar Jackson cannot win you playoff games in the pros) they would have put up a much greater fight last week against the Chargers. I suspect there will eventually be a Sean McVay on the defensive side of the ball who completely changes the way football schematics are looked upon. But it won’t happen in the next few years at least by the sounds of things.

4. The College Football Championship game was extremely lopsided but it did raise questions as to whether quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa should indeed be able to head to the pros. I see the argument for keeping the players in school and getting their education, but even so, players can leave for the pros after three years in the college program and thus don’t always finish their education anyway. At the same time, there is a relatively significant gap in maturity between an 18 year old and a 21 year old, which is another factor to consider in the transition from college to the pros. Basketball make great use of their ‘One-and-Done’ system because in the NBA, players spend so much time with the team that they can, in many ways, keep the players out of trouble. In the NFL where there is so much down time for the players away from their team facilities. One also needs to consider that young players can have extreme form fluctuations from one year to the next. So often we see a young QB pegged as the sure No. 1 pick in the draft, only to bomb out in their final college year and then struggle just to make the pros (take Matt Barkley for instance). There are some logistical difficulties, but I think players at least should have the chance to go pro regardless of their age, though I doubt this happens given the NFL’s largely antiquated backward thinking on such topics.

5. There has been increased chatter about the Raiders playing in San Diego this season. Although long-time San Diego sports talk show host Lee Hamilton told the Silver and Black Today on CBS Sports Radio the reports are false, It is one of the preferred options should the Raiders play their home games in the USA. One of the potential headaches in such a move has been solved given that the NFL would reschedule the Raiders home game against the Los Angeles Chargers to either Mexico or London. I still think the Raiders play at Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park) in San Francisco, or they head across the pond to London for a year.

6. Kyler Murray is reportedly choosing football over baseball. None of the top teams in the draft explicitly need a quarterback. It makes a few scenarios possible for the Raiders. They could be the team to score a windfall as a team trades up for him, or they could move on from Derek Carr and have their pick of the quarterback draft class. Either story would be more than head turning.

7. Major League Baseball stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still have not signed deals for the upcoming MLB season, despite spring training being next month. It is such a contrast to the NFL’s free agency period, in which the majority of deals are completed within the first 72 hours of free agency opening.