2006 was the last time the Raiders had a defense ranked better than 20th in points allowed (they were 30th last season), and on the yardage side, they haven’t been much better. While the offense has carried the team to nearly .500 records of late, the defense has been an anchor preventing them from seriously competing.
That’s where new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley comes in. In four years with the Chargers, they never ranked outside the top 15 in yards allowed — with three top-10 finishes across his tenure. The word you keep hearing used about Bradley’s approach is “simplicity,” which is good considering it’s the exact opposite of former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s approach.
The truth is, the Raiders don’t need this group to be a top 10 defense this season — as the hope is simply that they’re competitive enough to finish somewhere around the top 20.
With all the money and draft capital invested in this group, the good news for Raiders fans is that it might actually happen this season…
DE: Yannick Ngakoue, Maxx Crosby
Backups: Carl Nassib, Clelin Ferrell, Malcolm Koonce
The success of this defense will be determined by this position group — and whether Ngakoue and Crosby can make quarterbacks uncomfortable off of the edge. Beyond the starters, there is depth here as well — with both Nassib and Ferrell offering upside as situational rushers and run defense specialists. Koonce was a third-round pick this spring out of Buffalo.
DT: Jonathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson/Solomon Thomas/Gerald McCoy
Backup: Darius Philon
Jefferson, Thomas and McCoy are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, but my guess is Jefferson gets the start inside alongside the nose tackle Hankins. There were many games last season where I felt like Hankins was the best defensive player the Raiders had — especially at disrupting opponents’ rushing attacks — making his return on a one-year deal huge for Bradley and the defense. Overall, this might be the most improved unit on the roster from last season — especially when it comes to rushing the passer.
LB: KJ Wright, Denzel Perryman/Nick Kwiatkoski, Cory Littleton
Backups: Divine Deablo
Most of the time, you’ll see just two linebackers on the field (probably Wright and Littleton), but this is yet another solid group of players for a Raiders defense that has rarely been able to say that. Wright was a last-minute addition this preseason but immediately stepped in as one of the three best players on the defense as a whole. Littleton came in with a lot of hype a couple of years ago but struggled in his first season — the hope is that a simplified scheme will unlock the potential the Raiders saw when they handed him a three-year, $36 million deal last off-season.
CB: Trayvon Mullen Jr., Casey Hayward
Backups: Nate Hobbs, Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson
When the Raiders go to a three-corner set, Hobbs figures to get the start in the slot — at least while Nevin Lawson serves his one-game suspension. Hobbs has been a revelation this spring, as the fifth-round pick has flashed every time he has seen the field. Will that continue once he’s up against starters and elite quarterbacks? We’ll see.
The other big storyline here is Arnette having given up his starting spot to Hayward, who came over with Bradley from the Chargers. Arnette will be given every opportunity to win back his job this season — and I think he’s going to prove his doubters wrong in a big way.
S: Tre’Von Moehrig, Jonathan Abram
Backups: Roderic Teamer, Tyree Gillespie, Dallin Leavitt
Talk about a boom or bust group here. The Raiders are starting two first-round picks at safety — one a rookie and one who has been a disappointment across his first two seasons. Again: the hope is that Bradley’s simplicity unlocks Abram, while Moehrig’s ability in pass coverage covers up a hole in the back that the Raiders have long needed to cover. The depth here is full of question marks, so the Raiders are all in on the two young guys.