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Raiders: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis

Dan WilkinsCorrespondent IIJuly 8, 2014

Raiders: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Oakland Raiders will enter the 2014 season with a new-look defense, and one that could make for the best they’ve had in quite some time.

    A busy offseason saw changes on both sides of the ball, but it was the problem areas of the defense—the defensive line and cornerbacks in particular—that were addressed accordingly.

    Now, the defensive staff may finally have the personnel to employ its scheme to the fullest, making this a high-potential unit this season.

    Here is a position-by-position breakdown and depth-chart analysis of the new-look Raiders defense for 2014.

Right Defensive End

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images
    1. LaMarr Woodley
    2. Shelby Harris
    3. Ryan Robinson

    The Raiders lost one of their best young players to free agency this offseason in Lamarr Houston, but they made up for it in a big way with the signing of LaMarr Woodley.

    Of course, losing Houston was big for the defensive front overall, but Woodley brings more to the position as a pass-rusher off the edge.

    Going back to his old defensive end spot should be an interesting transition to watch heading into the season, as more opportunities to get after the quarterback could make for a spike in sack production.

    Behind Woodley, at this point, the Raiders’ depth is inexperienced and thin as a result.

    Considering that, this makes for one of several spots on defense that we could see the Raiders add to around final roster cuts, as a defensive line can never have enough pass-rushers.

    Either way, the addition of Woodley in the starting lineup is one of several changes that should help the pass rush in a big way in 2014.

3-Technique Defensive Tackle

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press
    1. Antonio Smith
    2. C.J. Wilson

    Another big free-agent addition for the Raiders’ pass rush this offseason was Antonio Smith.

    Coming over from Houston, Smith had long been a 5-technique end in the Texans’ 3-4 front, but he will now make the transition to the 3-technique in the Raiders’ 4-3.

    Every player is different, as is every defensive system, but Jason Hatcher’s increased production in 2013 after the Dallas Cowboys made the switch to an even front demonstrates the kind of opportunities that different roles can present.

    Smith has always been among the league’s best pass-rushing 3-4 ends, so it will be interesting to see if he can flourish in his new position with the Raiders, much like Hatcher was able to do in Dallas.

    Behind him on the depth chart is C.J. Wilson, a former 3-4 end coming over from the Green Bay Packers.

    Wilson gives the Raiders solid depth both here and across the defensive front, as his versatility will allow him to play a number of positions.

    Of course, the Raiders’ crowded nose tackle group should see snaps here in rotation, as should Justin Tuck in nickel sets, making defensive tackle one of the Raiders’ deeper positions on this side of the ball.

Nose Tackle

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images
    1. Stacy McGee
    2. Pat Sims
    3. Justin Ellis

    With the return of Pat Sims, the development of Stacy McGee and the drafting of Justin Ellis, the Raiders’ nose tackle spot is in good shape moving forward.

    McGee will be the early favorite to start given his consistent play in the run game as a rookie, but this group should feature a fluid rotation, regardless of who is on the field to open the game.

    Sims is more so an upfield player than he is anchor against the run, despite some inconsistency with increased snaps, which he displayed in dominant fashion down the stretch last season.

    Ellis, a fourth-round selection, could push both for snaps by the time the regular season gets under way, as he has the size and strength to excel against the run, but he also has the quickness to develop some pass-rushing ability in time as well.

    Again, these three could very well force their way onto the field as part of an interior-line rotation, regardless of specific alignment, as it makes for a deep position group overall.

Left Defensive End

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    USA TODAY Sports
    1. Justin Tuck
    2. Jack Crawford

    Upgrading at left end was a priority for the Raiders this offseason, and they were able to do so in a big way with the signing of Justin Tuck.

    Tuck is now on what we consider to be the wrong side of 30, but his run of 9.5 sacks over the last six games of the 2013 season suggests that he’s still got plenty left to offer.

    That, coupled with his always consistent play against the run, as well as the leadership value he brings to a rebuilding team, will make him one of the Raiders’ most valuable additions this offseason.

    Like the right end spot, the depth here is thin, so the Raiders need a player like Jack Crawford to step up and take hold of a rotational role moving forward.

    However, from a pass-rushing standpoint, we must also keep in mind that young linebackers Khalil Mack and Sio Moore will be rotated into defensive end spots on passing downs as well.

    Either way, the early-down depth remains a concern, so we can expect this to be another spot the Raiders remain open to adding to throughout the preseason.

Weak-Side Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports
    1. Sio Moore
    2. Kevin Burnett
    3. Miles Burris

    The linebackers group likely features more depth than any other on the Raiders’ roster, currently comprised of solid starters and backup players across the board.

    With the drafting of Khalil Mack, Sio Moore will make the switch to the weak side and should start there this season.

    Moore was a standout rookie in 2013, and he certainly has the ability and potential to become the kind of foundation player head coach Dennis Allen sees him as moving forward.

    Moore’s transition to the weak side likely bumps both Kevin Burnett and Miles Burris down a spot on the depth chart, again making the unit’s overall talent level all the more impressive.

    Rotating in linebackers is tougher than doing so with the defensive line, but this kind of depth allows the Raiders to use Moore and Mack as late-down pass-rushers as often as they would like.

Middle Linebacker

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images
    1. Nick Roach
    2. Kaluka Maiava
    3. Miles Burris

    The Raiders’ 2013 leader in tackles, Nick Roach returns as the starting middle linebacker this season.

    While Roach fares better in pass coverage than he does in run defense, the added size up front should help him quite a bit in that area.

    As the Raiders exhausted all options to manufacture a pass rush last season, Roach proved to be among the team’s best linebackers at getting after the quarterback, finishing second on the team overall with 5.5 sacks.

    The depth here is also relatively solid, as Kaluka Maiava and Miles Burris are players who could step in as needed while being key contributors on special teams as well.

    Again, with backups who can play a number of positions, the depth at linebacker is in good shape heading into 2014.

Strong-Side Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports
    1. Khalil Mack
    2. Kaluka Maiava
    3. Kaelin Burnett

    Strong-side linebacker will get more attention than any other position on the Raiders defense this season thanks to the first-round addition of Khalil Mack.

    Mack, capable of contributing against the run, in coverage and as a pass-rusher, should fill a role in Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver’s defense similar to that of the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller.

    Like Miller, his biggest job will be to get after the quarterback, but everything else he can do within the defense shouldn’t be overlooked either.

    Again, depth behind Mack is solid, with a number of players capable of stepping in if needed. However, the difference here is that the backup players won’t have the same rare skill set that made Mack the highly touted prospect he was heading into this year’s draft.

    It’s safe to say that, with Mack, this spot now has a player who could turn out to be the Raiders’ best and most important player on defense for the foreseeable future.

Cornerback

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    USA TODAY Sports
    1. Tarell Brown
    2. D.J. Hayden
    3. Carlos Rogers
    4. Keith McGill
    5. T.J. Carrie
    6. Chimdi Chekwa
    7. Taiwan Jones

    With the additions of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers teaming with D.J. Hayden, the Raiders should be improved at the top of the cornerback depth chart.

    Both are experienced veterans who can still bring a lot to this secondary, while Hayden, if he can stay healthy, has the skill set to become a No. 1 corner in the NFL.

    It remains to be seen how the players further down the depth chart can develop in a short period of time, for which the potential is certainly there.

    Keith McGill’s size and athleticism give him a high ceiling, while late-round selection T.J. Carrie has consistently impressed head coach Dennis Allen throughout the team’s offseason work thus far.

    Overall, this group has a good mix of established veterans and high-potential young players, and that dynamic could bode well for the Raiders both now and heading into the future.

Free Safety

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    1. Charles Woodson
    2. Usama Young
    3. Jonathan Dowling

    Charles Woodson returns to the Raiders in 2014 and will start at free safety.

    Woodson has always had a nose for the football, and the hope will be that a second season at the position will allow him to really settle in and produce some turnovers on the defense’s back end.

    Despite entering the season at the age of 37, the talent upgrades made throughout the defense could indeed allow him to do just that.

    Behind Woodson on the depth chart will be the Raiders’ third safety in Usama Young and a 2014 draft selection who will likely be a developmental prospect in Jonathan Dowling.

    Young can fill in at either safety spot if needed, while Dowling could be developed as the team’s future free safety for when Woodson eventually retires.

    As such, this is another position on the Raiders defense with a good mix of veterans and youth that could pay off as the team continues its rebuilding process moving forward.

Strong Safety

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
    1. Tyvon Branch
    2. Brandian Ross

    Getting Tyvon Branch back and healthy would be a huge boost for the Raiders’ secondary, as it struggled in his absence throughout the 2013 season.

    One of the Raiders’ better defensive players overall, his return can be considered yet another of many important additions the team was able to make this offseason.

    The key for Branch, however, will be to stay healthy, as the depth behind him at this point is quite thin.

    Brandian Ross struggled as the starter in 2013, so another strong safety could be added to the mix in the near future.

    Again, Branch's return is significant, as he can be one of the Raiders’ best players when healthy, but adding further depth to this spot should remain a priority heading into the season regardless.

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