In the 2021 NFL draft, many were calling for the Raiders to draft a safety in the first round to help shore up the defense’s back end. Raiders safeties have not been reliable, nor have they performed at a level general manager Mike Mayock or head coach Jon Gruden were comfortable with.
So in the first round this year, Las Vegas went in a totally different direction, picking offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood.
But the Raiders didn’t end up ignoring the position, coming back and trading up in the second round to pick Tre’von Moehrig, who many thought the team should have picked in the first round.
Moehrig played at TCU and had a reputation as a hard-hitting tackler. While with the Horned Frogs, he had seven interceptions and broke up 21 passes as well. He scored five touchdowns in college.
Besides Moehrig, the Raiders drafted two other safeties in Divine Deablo (third round out of Virginia Tech) and Tyree Gillespie (fourth round out of Missouri). Deablo, however, could end up as a linebacker.
But if the Raiders safeties were led by one highly touted rookie and two more drafted in the middle rounds, they would be in trouble. Fortunately, that won’t be the case. Raiders safeties have struggled despite high draft capital and free-agent spending over the years.
Raiders safeties: Abram under the microscope
Johnathan Abram returns after making 60 tackles last season with two interceptions. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2019 and is entering his third season with the team. Abrams had 85 tackles and two interceptions in 2020. However, he’ll need to improve his coverage skills as Pro Football Focus rated Abrams as the worst safety in the league in terms of coverage skills. Many believe this is a make-or-break year for the well-liked but inconsistent young defensive back. Perhaps, discipline and focus will be the key to making enough progress to earn his second contract in Las Vegas. Abram will also move to box safety in a move that should help him.
Karl Joseph, who the Raiders drafted in the first round in 2016, left the team before last season and played a key role for a Cleveland Browns’ team that made the playoffs. Joseph had been a consistent performer for the Raiders but suffered a foot injury in 2018 and missed the season’s last seven games. With the Browns, Joseph had 67 tackles with one interception. He also recovered two fumbles.
The Raiders safeties will be critical to the success of the Raiders defense, with a division that includes Super Bowl quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert.
New coach could impact backfield play
The Raiders brought in four new players, three in the draft and one more in free agency, to help shore up the safety position. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley may have some say in the success of the safety position as well. His experience and history suggest the Raiders safeties should improve markedly for the 2021 season.
Bradley had been the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers for the past four years, along with a previous head coaching position with the Jacksonville Jaguars (from 2013-16) and defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks (2009-12).
In his time in Seattle, Bradley’s defense was one of the league’s best and was heavily reliant on a hard-hitting safety group called the “Legion of Boom.” If the Raiders safeties can improve significantly over last season, it would go a long way to helping the overall defensive unit compete at a higher level.
Perhaps one of the best and earliest moves Bradley made was bringing along defensive backs coach Ron Milus to coach the Raiders safeties, and the defensive backs. Milus spent eight years with the Chargers and has one of the best reputations in the NFL of developing young defensive backs. He’ll have plenty to do and several players to coach up when the Raiders kick off the 2021 season.