There’s no question the Las Vegas Raiders defense was the weakest link on a team that finished 8-8 in what was a disappointing year for the team. Still, it’s worthwhile to explore how each position group performed — good and bad.
The Raiders’ defense has earned the scorn of most within Raider Nation due to a terrible 2020 season. While the Raiders avoided a losing season finishing at .500, it has their top 10 offense to thank for that. Very rarely did the Raiders’ defense do much to help the offense win in 2020.
Raiders Defense: Defensive Line
Since Khalil Mack’s departure three years ago, the Raiders have been searching for a sack artist. This season was no different as the acquisitions of Carl Nassib, Vic Beasley and Malik Collins didn’t change the outcome of their underachieving pass rush.
The Raiders finished the season with 21 sacks, ranking 29th in the NFL. Maxx Crosby led the defense with seven sacks, but only had one in the final seven weeks.
The Raiders’ run defense was the defense’s strength last season, but in 2020 it took a turn for the worst. They allowed 125.8 rushing yards per game, ranking in the bottom third of the league. However, the lone bright spot along the defensive line was second-year player Clelin Ferrell. The former No. 4 overall pick was the Raiders best run-stuffer, and when he was inactive due to injury, opposing teams took full advantage of his absence. Ferrell improved his pressure rate, quarterback hits and caused more forced fumbles, showing a sign of development.
Defensive Line Grade: D
The Raiders 2020 season began with a revamped linebacking core, with the additions of Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Raekwon McMillan.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, their investment in Littleton didn’t live up to expectations. As Littleton dropped in coverage, he allowed a 70.8% completion percentage when targeted. His play did see an improvement in the final three weeks under interim defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but overall he didn’t deliver what was anticipated based on his hefty payday.
Kwiatkoski was the quarterback of the defense and showed flashes of being that bluechip defender that the Raiders so desperately need. However, his play in large part leveled off as the season progressed. He rarely hurt the Raiders, but he wasn’t necessarily someone who put them over the top either.
McMillian split time with Nicholas Morrow in the Raiders’ 4-3 base defense. Morrow was favored by the coaching staff, seeking more snaps and put together his best statistical season. McMillian came aboard to be the “downhill enforcer” against the run but played primarily on special teams just to see the field. Kyle Wilber and Javin White received minimal snaps but didn’t show much value to the linebacker room in 2020.
Linebacker Grade: C
The Raiders’ cornerbacks and safeties were one of the less-experienced groups in the NFL. With three starters in the secondary being in either their first or second season, lumps in the road were bound to happen. And ultimately they did.
Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen started opposite of each other on the outside, while Lamarcus Joyner played nickel cornerback. Arnette missed nearly half the games due to concussions. When healthy, he showed his physicality that he so strongly displayed during his time at Ohio State. He looks like a longtime starting cornerback but his rookie season had its ups and downs as well. Mullen regressed in year two, allowing a 61.2% completion percentage and 11.2 yards per completion — both of which are worse than his rookie season. Joyner, however, showed growth in his second year with the Raiders, but it still remains distant to the level of which his contract demands.
Arguably the weakest link of the Raiders’ 2020 season is the safety position. With Jonathan Abram, Erik Harris, Jeff Heath and Dallin Leavitt on the backend, each of the group demonstrated their flaws. Abram is the Raiders’ tone-setter, but it appears teams have begun targeting him in the passing game, and he’s scuffled in that regard. The Raiders will certainly need to add reinforcements at the safety position this offseason.
Defensive Backs Grade: F
The Raiders’ special teams unit was a strength during the 2020 season. Maybe it’s unfair to include them with the Raiders’ defense?
Kicker Daniel Carlson became the Raiders’ all-time single-season scoring leader. Carlson passed Sebastian Janikowski’s previous record of 142 points scored in 2010. Punter AJ Cole flipped the field when called upon. He averaged 44.1 yards per punt.
Hunter Renfrow handled the punt return duties, while Jalen Richard and Henry Ruggs returned kicks. Renfrow returned 23 punts, averaging 11.5 yards per attempt. Richard and Ruggs averaged 22 yards per kick return. The special teams unit was not a burden on the team this season, but there still remains room for improvements.
Special Teams Grade: A-