The Oakland Raiders revamped their defense this offseason by bringing in nine new starters. When the Raiders take the field for Week 1, the only two returning defensive starters will be defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch, and Houston will be flipping sides.
While defensive backs Charles Woodson and rookie D.J. Hayden have grabbed most of the headlines, linebacker Nick Roach has simply gone about his business.
Outside of Hayden, the Raiders made the biggest commitment to Roach, making him a key player in any defensive turnaround.
The four-year contract with $5 million in guarantees Roach signed signifies a change from utility linebacker for the Chicago Bears to a defensive leader in Oakland. A lot of the Raiders' improvement on defense will depend on the performance of Roach, who was the understudy of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
The Practice Squad Stash
Unlike Urlacher and Briggs, Roach wasn’t drafted. A roster spot for Roach was far from assured when he entered the league in 2007. Roach initially signed with the San Diego Chargers and spent most of his rookie season on their practice squad.
However, even the Chargers knew they might have very good player on their hands. According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chargers had hoped to stash Roach and even increased his practice squad pay in the weeks prior to him signing with the Bears.
Below is the scouting report Biggs compiled from multiple league sources at the time:
He is an intelligent player who has a good feel for dropping in coverage and reading routes. He breaks well on the ball and has good hands, and plays downhill in the run game and uses his hands well to shed blocks. He has a knack for being in the right position.
By 2008, Roach became a starter for the Bears on the strong side. With Urlacher and Briggs on the team, Roach was the linebacker who came off the field when the team used the nickel package.
The Bears didn’t seem content with Roach as the starter. In 2009, they signed Pisa Tinoisamoa, who had a history with then-head coach Lovie Smith. Roach would play every game and start 15, but he wasn’t the starter for Week 1.
Tinoisamoa and Urlacher were injured in the first game, so Roach became the starter on the strong side again. Roach also made three starts in the middle when Urlacher’s replacement Hunter Hillenmeyer was out for Weeks 4 through 6. This was Roach’s first action at middle linebacker, as well as the first time he would play every defensive snap.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Roach was average at middle linebacker overall in his three starts at middle linebacker in 2010, but he also had his best and worst games of the seasons in the middle. Roach apparently didn’t do enough to stick there while Urlacher was out—or even enough to have a defined role the following season.
In 2010, Roach only started six games, with the first coming in Week 11. Tinoisamoa was again the starter on the strong side, but the Bears made the switch to Roach for the stretch run and finished as the league’s fourth-best defense in points allowed.
A Part-Time Player
From 2011 to 2012, Roach was the starter on the strong side for the Bears. Roach was never able to stay on the field for every snap, but that’s hardly an insult when the two linebackers on the field in nickel situations are Urlacher and Briggs.
Although Roach only played about half the time, he was very much one of the Bears' key contributors.
When Urlacher went down at the end of 2012, Roach became the starting middle linebacker for the final four games.
Just like Roach’s previous short stint at middle linebacker, Roach had his best game of the season, and also a bad game. In his four games starting in the middle, Roach had 31 tackles (25 solo) and two passes defensed, which projects to 124 combined tackles (100 solo) and eight passes defensed over a 16-game season.
Only linebackers Luke Kuechly and Karlos Dansby had at least 100 solo tackles, 24 assists and eight passes defensed last season. In total, only eight linebackers have achieved that kind of production since 2007.
The Bears would have liked to re-sign Roach, but the Raiders likely offered more money and a bigger role. The Bears ended up drafting linebacker Jon Bostic in the second round and signing veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson to replace both Roach and Urlacher.
A Small Sample of Excellence
Roach has both a large sample size as a part-time player at strong-side linebacker and a small sample size as a starting middle linebacker, but the Raiders obviously felt he was worth the risk. Although the sample of Roach in the middle is small, it’s also been very positive.
One of the main problems the Raiders had at middle linebacker last year was in coverage, which is where Roach excelled as a middle linebacker. This is somewhat surprising, considering that Roach was the linebacker who came off the field on passing downs.
According to Pro Football Focus data (subscription required), Roach allowed a reception every 22.5 snaps in coverage at middle linebacker, which was the best in the league for any inside linebacker regardless of sample size. Roach’s sample was 135 snaps, which is about one-third of the average.
Roach only allowed 0.42 yards per snap in coverage, the lowest of any linebacker with more than 100 snaps in coverage. Opposing offenses only targeted Roach once every 10.4 snaps when he was in coverage. Only eight linebackers who had 100 coverage snaps were targeted less per snap.
Roach was no pushover against the run either, with a run stop percentage of 10.9 percent, fifth among middle linebackers on the list who had at least 100 run snaps. Roach missed only two tackles, but he attempted 16.5 for every miss, which is better than NaVorro Bowman, who missed a tackle every 16.3 attempts.
Obviously, these are all based on small samples, but Roach was nearly as good when he started at middle linebacker in 2009.
The Raiders are taking a calculated risk that he can be as productive on a permanent basis.
Unlike Chicago, where Roach was the unheralded utility linebacker behind Urlacher and Briggs, the Raiders need him to be their Urlacher. Roach will wear the green dot on his helmet and be responsible for getting the defense in position.
Roach said everyone plays within their personality, but he also acknowledged that he has to fulfill his role on the team. Roach is a soft-spoken guy, but he has to be a vocal leader.
When I talked to Roach the second day of training camp, his voice was almost gone.
“My role is to start the communications, relay things from the sideline to guys and just make sure things are running smoothly so that everybody else can be the most successful,” Roach said when asked how his on-field personality compares to his off-field personality. “I have to yell a lot more.”
At the very least, Roach understands what he needs to do to complete the transition from utility player to defensive leader. The success of Oakland’s defense may be linked not only to Roach’s on-field play, but also his on-field leadership.
“I learned from one of the best,” Roach said about Urlacher. “It’s about having fun, but just getting the guys to trust you so that when you are trying to get on the same page, they’ll actually be able to tune into your voice and hear you when the play is going on.”
If Oakland’s defense is much improved in 2013, chances are Roach is going to deserve a lot of credit for the turnaround.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.