There is little argument to be made against the fact that the 2013 season will be another rebuilding year for Reggie McKenzie, Dennis Allen and the Oakland Raiders.
Playing in an AFC West division that the vast majority will virtually hand to the Denver Broncos before the season even gets underway, it can be fairly easy to write the Raiders off early.
At the same time, despite their salary-cap issues, significant roster turnover and number of holes at various spots on the depth chart, this team, like every other in the NFL, will be expected to compete by both its management and fans.
With some talented players on offense, centered around a superstar-caliber running back in Darren McFadden, the hope is that the transition back to a much more suitable scheme will make instant improvements upon a horrendous 2012 showing.
Where things get very interesting for the Raiders is forecasting just how the defense will look in 2013.
Heading into the second season of Allen and Jason Tarver’s systems, to say the Raiders have overhauled their defensive personnel is quite the understatement.
With all of the additions through both free agency and what turned out to be quite a sizable number of draft picks, the Raiders now only return two of 11 starters on defense: defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch.
Now, it is one thing to turn over a roster for the sake of doing so amid a mass organizational rebuild, but it is another to do so making noticeable improvements.
On the defensive side of the ball, at least, the Raiders seem to have done just that, looking to have the potential for significant improvement in a number of key areas.
Taking a look at the Raiders’ defensive personnel, there will be more initial concern surrounding the front four than any other group.
The loss of some big names like that of Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Desmond Bryant and Matt Shaughnessy warrants some of that concern and will certainly create some depth issues, but it’s not all negative here.
To replace the big veterans in the middle, the Raiders added free agents Vance Walker and Pat Sims, as well as sixth-round draft pick Stacy McGee.
Both Walker and Sims are expected to take on starting roles immediately, and both have established themselves as productive players defending the run.
Again, while the losses of Seymour, Kelly and Bryant in the middle do hurt, and especially so from a pass rush stand point, there is no denying how much the Raiders’ run defense struggled for years despite their presence.
The additions of Walker and Sims have the potential to turn around those struggles, and while they may not be as well known as the aforementioned former Raiders, this was much-needed change up front.
The primary and most well-documented concern for this Raiders defense, however, remains their ability to generate a pass rush.
At defensive end, the projected starters are a young star in Lamarr Houston and an experienced veteran in Andre Carter.
Houston, a well-established anchor against the run, continues to develop his pass-rushing ability from outside as well. Despite what some would consider underwhelming production in the sack column, his ability to consistently create pressure and disrupt the pocket carries significant value itself.
On the other side, having Carter enter this season fully healthy should go a long way to seeing improved production on his part. As the 2012 season wore on, and Carter continued to get reacclimated from his prior injury, it became obvious that he still had something left in the tank and was Oakland's best pass-rusher
Although both Carter and Houston are capable of getting after the quarterback, the key for the Raiders in 2013 will be getting contributions from several additional players as well.
While the Raiders could certainly look to free agency when it comes time for final roster cuts, keep an eye on one of their seventh-round selections, David Bass, as well.
Bass’ speed off the edge gives him the potential to contribute as a pass-rush specialist in nickel packages, and especially so considering the Raiders’ need for depth there.
The Raiders’ unit up front has a good mix of veterans and young players, and while depth will be a concern heading into this season, this group has the potential to surprise some people across the league.
The starting unit at linebacker has experienced more turnover than any roster group on this team, and for good reason.
That very turnover has made them one of the most improved units on the roster, and thus one of the more exciting to watch as the offseason moves along.
Heading into the 2013 season, we can project a starting group that consists of Nick Roach in the middle and any two of Kevin Burnett, Kaluka Maiava and Sio Moore on the outside.
In the middle, Roach will provide the Raiders with a smart, athletic player who possesses the kind of balanced skill set that they have missed in past years.
Roach may not be the kind of “thumper” that Rolando McClain was sometimes known to be against the run, but he will certainly hold his own in that department, while also giving the Raiders a massive upgrade in coverage.
Both Burnett and Maiava have been some of the league’s most underrated 4-3 outside linebackers in recent years, and their offseason signings follow suit with that of Roach, and the balance they bring in their skill sets.
Both thus have potential three-down value, and should either not find themselves in the starting lineup, the improvement in linebacker depth becomes all the more obvious.
Moore, the Raiders’ third-round selection, should have an important role regardless of whether or not he wins a starting spot coming out of camp.
As was mentioned in regard to the defensive line, the Raiders’ ability to generate a pass rush continues to be a concern heading into this season.
While Moore has the potential to contribute as an early down outside linebacker, his greatest value will come with his ability to put his hand on the ground and get after the quarterback as a nickel pass-rusher.
Of course, as with any newlydrafted player, the transition to the NFL game is the unknown variable. However, should Moore prove himself as a capable edge-rusher in his rookie season, suddenly a nickel package defensive line of Andre Carter, Vance Walker, Lamarr Houston and Sio Moore does not look so bad.
Overall, the balance and versatility that this new-look linebacker group brings should go a long way to improving the Raiders defense as a whole.
These upgrades have not only improved the starting lineup at the position, but the depth of which as well. Having a starter from last season in Miles Burris now likely to take on a backup role at any or all of the linebacker positions is extremely valuable moving forward.
Similar to the linebacker group, the secondary has undergone a complete overhaul this offseason. Considering its struggles in coverage throughout the 2012 campaign, that can only be considered progress for the Raiders as they continue their rebuild.
At corner, early projections will have both first-round selection D.J. Hayden and free-agent addition Tracy Porter as the starters.
It remains to be seen how quickly Hayden will acclimate himself to the NFL game, especially considering the fact that he is now expected to be out until the start of training camp, but he has the natural ability in coverage to be the Raiders’ No. 1 corner from day one.
After a tough season in Denver, largely due to some health reasons that were out of his control, Porter will be looking to rebound. Playing under Allen, he is now reunited with his position coach from his seasons with the New Orleans Saints where he certainly experienced his most career success.
Although Hayden and Porter are projected as starters, there will still be plenty of competition here. In fact, the Raiders’ competition at cornerback will be among the most interesting to follow throughout training camp.
Also in the mix for some significant playing time will be free-agent signee Mike Jenkins, Joselio Hanson and Phillip Adams.
Whichever way the depth chart works itself out, a group consisting of Hayden, Porter, Jenkins, Hanson and Adams is both more talented and a much deeper group than that of last season.
At strong safety, the Raiders’ second returning defensive starter, Tyvon Branch, continues to be one of their best players overall.
In recent seasons, Branch’s defensive contributions against both the run and pass may have been overlooked due to a struggling overall unit around him, but this is the year that could change in a big way.
The significant upgrades at corner will certainly help, but so will the presence of his new teammate at free safety, Charles Woodson.
Since Woodson’s signing in Oakland, and his essential “homecoming” to the silver and black, the potential impact he will have has been well-discussed.
Despite his age, he has proved that he can still play at a very high level, and the leadership he will bring not only to a young defense, but to the team overall, goes without saying.
Expected to have a defensive role that allows him to roam around and best utilize his instincts and playmaking ability, Woodson should have plenty of opportunities to create turnovers and contribute in a big way.
Free-agent addition Usama Young has established himself as a more-than-capable starting safety in this league, and having him as the primary backup for both Branch and Woodson again speaks toward significantly improved depth in the secondary.
All things considered, the Raiders have done well to improve a secondary that was arguably the NFL’s worst unit in 2012.
Now, while they may not be at the top of the league, upgrades at both the starting positions and further down the depth chart will go a long way to helping the coverage unit overall, and subsequently the defense’s biggest concern, the pass rush.
What to Expect
Despite the fact that the Raiders have lost some big names in free agency this offseason, they have made significant upgrades across the defense.
Expect the upgrades in the front seven, as well as the addition of Woodson at safety, to help improve what has been a struggling run defense for many years now.
Yes, the pass rush remains a prime concern, but that is where the defensive scheming and game-planning of Allen and Tarver needs to play its part.
Now, with an improved coverage unit in the secondary, the coaching staff can get more creative with the variety of blitz packages it chooses to employ, sending extra defenders from a number of different positions.
Having as many starting-potential linebackers as the Raiders do, as well as some capable of rushing the passer off the edge, the defensive staff can create these different situations through the multiple formations it has long been looking to make use of.
Overall, the Raiders defense will probably not be among the league’s best, but nor should it be among the league’s worst.
Continuing to add the kind of players they want to this unit, Allen and Tarver should be able to open up the defensive playbook even more.
If that very scheme’s success toward the back end of last season is any indication, now with much-improved personnel groups at many spots, this Raiders defense should take a big step forward in 2013.
Dan Wilkins is an Oakland Raiders Featured Columnist. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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