The Oakland Raiders defense has struggled in recent years, most notably in stopping the run. LaDainian Tomlinson made running against Oakland an art, and even JAGs like Kolby Smith have been made to look like the second coming of Sweetness when faced with the Raiders' lack of run defense.
Well, finally the front office decided enough was enough. With talent in the secondary, the front seven needed to be addressed, because if you can't stop the run, you can't win in the NFL.
Don't believe me? Look at the Raiders record over the last seven years, and how it corresponds to their rank in rush defense.
Now there are some new faces that have been added via draft, trade, and free agency that should make an immediate impact in first and foremost the improvement of the Raiders run defense, and by extension, the defense as a whole.
The talent is there; the coaching is there with the return of coordinator John Marshall and the addition of Mike Waufle as line guru.
It's time for the execution to meet the expectations.
NOTE: This slideshow only takes into account Raider free agents expected to start or make a significant contribution, or players that were drafted this past season. Hence, Kellen Heard, Alex Daniels, Joe Porter, Joey Thomas, and Chris Cooper are not part of this show (nor anyone else I may have missed).
This picture personifies the type of player Oakland's first-round draft choice, Rolando McClain, can be for this defense.
It frames the sheer size and musculature of McClain, something that a middle linebacker definitely needs and that fan favorite Kirk Morrison was lacking.
It also paints a picture of leadership, with him showing a teammate where to be during a pre-snap adjustment while his eyes simmer with intensity, the type of intensity we desperately need from our MLB.
We all know about McClain's pedigree: Butkus award winner, starter for Alabama from Day 1, best MLB prospect since Ray Lewis.
What sets him apart is his desire to succeed; he became one of the top defensive players in the NCAA despite battling Crohn's disease, which is can be a very physically debilitating affliction. McClain works extremely hard to eat properly, exercise, and maintain his weight regardless of the challenge he faces.
When it comes to football, he's ravenous.
His first order of business after being drafted by the Raiders? Calling them immediately to request tape of every snap last season so he could get a jump on integrating himself into the schemes, and understanding roles & responsibilities in the Raider defense.
Nick Saban is widely considered a defensive genius amongst the NCAA football ranks, and he is on record as saying McClain is the smartest football player he's ever coached. His size, strength, instincts, leadership ability, football smarts, and appetite for learning every nuance of the Raider defense bode well for him to be an excellent defensive quarterback for years to come.
That's the sound that Henderson's face makes before games, when he solicits a team trainer to give him a good slap to fire him up. That's also the sound running backs make when they run into Big John and his 6'7, 340 pd frame. A multiple Pro Bowler reaching the nadir of his fine career, Henderson can still have a major impact on the run defense of the Raiders.
Henderson brings to the Raiders a true 0-technique DT, one who can occupy multiple blockers and allow 3-technique Tommy Kelly to be blocked one-on-one, and our linebackers to keep a helmet out of their numbers.
Henderson's size and strength on the line can keep the point of attack long enough for our team speed to get to the ball.
For the first time since Grady Jackson, there is a big mountain in the middle of the defense who's primary goal and most effective usage is stuffing the run and absorbing double teams.
Tommy Kelly is a big man, but he's more of a finesse player than a in-the-trenches banger. Henderson is used to throwing his weight around in a phone booth, and he should still give the Raiders a run stopping presence for 15-20 snaps a game despite his age and the wear on his tires.
With Kellen Heard and Desmond Bryant, two young but raw DT's that have shown potential, we have depth behind Big John should he get tired and need a blow.
Make no mistake; although not as young and spry as he once was, Henderson represents the new focus on stopping the run and adding size and strength to our front seven.
With a fresh start on a team with a young, fast, and (hopefully) aggressive defense, I see him playing very well.
Lamarr Houston is possibly the most interesting defensive lineman the Raiders have ever had. A former high school running back and linebacker who was recruited as a fullback and then played defensive end and defensive tackle at the University of Texas, this guy has seen it all from both sides of the ball.
That versatility shows a few traits: he has athleticism, as evidenced by his success as a running back in high school; he's intelligent, because as he's bulked up and grown he's adapted quite well to new positions; he's a team player, as evidenced by his willingness to switch positions to fit team needs; and he's a hard worker, or else he wouldn't have become a second round draft pick as a defensive lineman after beginning high school as a running back/linebacker.
Houston is also nasty, nasty, nasty. It's well-documented that if there was a scuffle in OTA's, Houston was in the middle of it. It should be interesting to see what happens when the pads come on and the gloves come off next week.
Houston and Richard Seymour give the Raiders two players with above average size and strength that have the versatility to move up and down the defensive line.
The potential for creating matchup mismatches cannot be overstated with these two beasts on the line. They should only help the rest of the front seven shed blocks and fly to the ball, no matter who's hands it may be in.
The signing of Big John and drafting of McClain and Houston (who will be primarily a 4-3 DE) adds size, instincts, and toughness to the front seven with the main focus of stopping the run. These three players will all compliment each other, and their size and strength will ensure that the Raiders will get run over no longer.
*SIGH* Getty images doesn't seem to have any current pics of our numerous additions; but we all know what uniform they're wearing this fall anyway.
Wimbley is an intriguing player. Known mostly for his pass rushing abilities, he burst onto the scene as a rookie with the Browns by recording 11 sacks and leading all AFC rookies in tackles, sacks, and tackles for a loss.
He looked to be an elite pass rusher in the making.
But Wimbley, playing on a Brown's defense that has struggled considerably the last few seasons, has been unable to recapture that rookie magic. The Raiders picked him up not only to add to an already decent pass rush, but to hold the edge in rushing situations as well. At 6'4, 250 lbs., he's much larger than Thomas Howard or Ricky Brown, the Raiders' OLB starters last season. He also runs a 4.61 40, so he has the speed to pursue the ball. He is currently slotted to start at "SAM" linebacker, replacing Brown from last season.
His pass rush skills will come in handy, but his size-speed-strength combination has a two-pronged positive for the defense in that he will have a hopefully also have a huge impact on the defense at the point of attack to limit big rushing gains.
His measurables and pass rush acumen fit perfectly with the Raiders philosophy of a big, strong, (hopefully) attacking front seven, and with the additions of McClain, Houston, and Henderson up front, he'll be free to put a hand down in passing situations, pin his ears back and go for the throat.
Groves is yet another guy slotted to play outside linebacker that is equally comfortable lining up with his hand in the dirt. Currently listed as a DE on the Raiders' depth chart, he will be standing up and playing OLB as well, perhaps being used in the "Elephant" scheme where he's rushing the passer. He has the size, strength and speed to play both.
After a highly decorated career at Auburn, Groves was snagged in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars and plugged into the lineup to rush the passer.
But while the Jags were waiting for him to get to the quarterback, they decided they'd be better served going in another direction, and traded him to the Raiders for a fifth round draft choice. With the Raiders trading our beloved Captain Kirk Morrison to the Jags for a fifth round choice, this basically equated to a Morrison for Groves swap: a good move for both teams based on need.
Groves has done little of consequence in the NFL thus far, but he's another OLB with excellent size (6'4, 255) and speed (4.59 in the 40) and has a repitoire of pass rushing moves, with instincts for getting to the quaterback.
If Groves ends up at OLB, suddenly, our LB's have gone from being small to being quite big.
In fact, with the addtions of McClain, Wimbley, and Groves, and with Trevor Scott having an excellent chance at starting at OLB, our starting LB's will average in the 255 lb. range.
Groves, though, needs to remember some of the skills and workmanship that got him highly drafted and tied him for first all-time in sacks at a storied program like Auburn. He has yet to approach his potential at the pro level, which I'm going to look at as encouraging as he's still quite young.
Groves, like Wimbley, is more adept at rushing the passer than he is at stopping the run, but the Raiders are banking that the increased size on the edge will keep blockers occupied and allow the speed of the defense to make plays on the ball. With Wimbley, Groves, and Scott (slotted to start at "WILL" linebacker) on the outside we now have three very large OLB's who all have pass rushing skills.
One theme in the front seven additions for the Raiders: they are all very large men for their positions who will have the size and strength to shed blocks, and possibly garner double teams. This defense has a ton of speed, and a big, nasty front seven is necessary to allow that speed to be used effectively.
Groves, along with Wimbley, give the Raiders two new hybrids who have above average size and strength and quite a bit of speed to go with it who can rush the passer.
The front seven has become a lot more dangerous; and there's depth now, too. Great moves.
Although he's had a few moments, many Raider fans, including myself, are not overly thrilled with Stanford Routt as our nickel corner. Though Routt has speed, his instincts, positioning, and tackling leave a little to be desired.
Enter Walter McFadden. With Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson entrenched as starters on the outside, the Raiders were looking to add depth and challenge Routt for the first time in his career when they picked McFadden in the fifth round of the 2010 draft.
McFadden also has pedigree, as his brother, Bryant, has been a starter in the NFL for five seasons, winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2008.
McFadden doesn't have Asomugha's size, nor does he have Chris Johnson's instincts yet, but he is a speedy, aggressive corner who likes to make plays on the ball. His slight frame (6'0, 185 pds) and desire to attack the ball mean that he suffers a little in run support, but a nickel corner is primarily counted on for his coverage skills, which is McFadden's strength.
He got burned quite a bit in OTA's, which I took more as a sign that DHB and our receivers were improving and Jason Campbell actually can throw the ball where it's supposed to go than that McFadden is out of his element.
The coaching staff seem to think that he can make plays in the NFL.
I know one thing; that'd be a pleasant deviation from the norm at the nickel position, despite Routt's almost touchdown that was negated by a garbage PI call last season.
McFadden will also contribute on special teams, so his chances of making the roster and sticking are very, very good.
Special teams are imperative for the success of a team, and McFadden's speed and aggression make him ideal for kick coverage.
This shot of Goethel at the combine is pertinent, because his ability to run a 4.58 in the 40 is probably what prompted the Raiders to take a flier on him in the sixth round.
A hard working player with excellent instincts and a nose for the ball, Goethel was a four-year starter who played in every game while at Arizona State. While mostly a run stuffer in college, he did show some athleticism in coverage by breaking up two passes and picking off three, one of which he even took to the house.
Known mainly for his aggressive, physical play, Goethel will be an immediate contributor on special teams and his propensity and desire for contact will make him a very effective player on kick coverage.
With the depth we've added at OLB in this offseason, it's tough to see Goethel getting on the field in game play situations.
But after losing Isaiah "Ike" Ekejiuba, a Pro Bowl kick coverage specialist, it is imperative that our special teams get a jolt from a big, fast, physical player like Goethel. His potential on special teams say to me he'll probably make the roster, even if he is currently fourth on the "SAM" depth chart behind Wimbley, "Scholarship" Sam Williams, and Slade Norris.
This picture shows two things. One, Ware is athletic and stays close in coverage. Two, he's very, very small.
Although he weighs more than McFadden, Ware is short and was thought to be headed to UFA status; until he ran a 4.37 in the 40 on his pro day. He also has a 37.5 inch vertical leap, nicely on display in this picture.
However, he is only 5'9, which means that despite his ups, he's not going to win many jump balls. But with his aggressiveness, he may just knock the receiver out before he comes down with the catch.
Now, the Raiders did a great job of ignoring the stopwatch and taking players of need at the top of the draft, but Ware is a project chosen based on his speed.
And in the seventh round, that's the right time to take a speed pick as a project.
Despite his size, reports from OTA's had Ware playing as well or better than McFadden in coverage. He's also physical and a hard hitter for his small stature.
Ware is playing above his draft status right now, and depth is needed in the secondary. That, and his speed and aggressiveness ensure he'll be a strong special teams contributor, meaning I see him making the roster as well.
The Raiders used their second of two seventh round picks on another player from the state of Michigan, this time Stevie Brown from the Wolverines.
After starting at safety as a junior, Michigan moved Brown to linebacker his senior year. His size and strength project him at safety for the Raiders; he has good size for a safety, but would be chewed up, swished around, and spit out as a linebacker at this level.
Brown was another lightly regarded player who was getting some love for his OTA play.
Surprisingly solid in coverage in OTA's, Brown showed in college that he can play the ball, defending 11 passes and intercepting four in his career despite starting only two seasons, and only one of those in the backfield (safety his junior year).
Like Goethel, Houston, and McClain before him, Stevie was a team captain in his senior season in college. The Raiders have put a premium on high character guys with leadership abilities, and Stevie fits that profile.
Though he's played well in OTA's, there is a logjam at safety right now with incumbents Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff, as well as Hiram Eugene, and last year's 2nd round pick, Mike MItchell.
I do think, though, that Brown's play in OTA's as well as his size, special teams contributions, and leadership abilities give him a better chance of making the roster than Jerome Boyd, who is in level with Brown on the depth chart at the moment.
Defensive line coach Mike Waufle is back in black. Holding the same position for the Raiders from 1998-2003 (you know, the last time we were good), and then coaching the NY Giants for the last six seasons, Waufle's teams routinely shut down the run and get to the passer.
Nowhere was this more evident than when his Giants pounded Tom Brady and the previously undefeated New England Patriots into submission in the Super Bowl in 2007. The defensive line pressured Brady all day and shut down the Patriots' vaunted offense by penetrating the backfield at will and stuffing the run when needed.
Waufle is a former Marine with a no-nonsense approach who is beloved by his former players.
When he was fired by the Giants, Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Michael Strahan all protested strongly in the media and via Twitter. Each credited Waufle's teaching ability and personable nature as bringing the best out of them as players.
In fact, in the six years Waufle coached the Giants, his lines were at or near the top of the rankings until the entire unit collapsed last season.
With the depth we have on the defensive line, good coaching could make this a scary group. Already blessed with Pro Bowler Richard Seymour, the underappreciated Tommy Kelly, and impressive youngster Matt Shaughnessy (who showed good pass rush as a rookie) and veteran Jay Richardson (who has disappointed thus far and needs to step up), the Raiders added Henderson and Houston to the mix.
Also around are Greyson Gunheim, Desmond Bryant, Alex Daniels, and an apparent diamond in the rough in big, nasty Kellen Heard.
This line has an equal balance of big bodies to stop the run and hard working, high-motor players that can rush the passer.
Seymour and Houston give the Raiders two players who can play multiple positions on the line; the talent and potential of this line in Waufle's hands is an exciting prospect, and I fully expect them to prosper.
The defensive additions can all work together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts (even though those parts are pretty talented).
Henderson up front means more double-teams, drawing blockers away from Kelly, Seymour, and our linebackers. This gives the entire defense more freedom to make plays.
Houston's versatility and strength gi0ve us a player who can be moved around to create mismatches (in conjunction with Seymour, to exploit the weakness of every OL we face), and a player who can hold the edge against the run while playing DE. He will also allow Henderson, Kelly, Seymour, Shaugnessy, and others to rest and stay fresh for the duration of the game.
McClain's size and instincts are an immediate upgrade to the run defense. His football smarts, leadership qualities, and desire to be great will set him apart as a leader and a player others want to follow. McClain will also ensure that everyone is in the right position and understands their assignments, something that wasn't always present with Kirk Morrison.
Wimbley and Groves give us two pass-rushing options with the versatility to play DE or OLB. I expect them both to see the majority of the time at OLB, but in passing situations I could see Wimbley or Trevor Scott shuffled to DE in favor of Thomas Howard at WLB, where he excels in coverage.
Thomas Howard should not be a forgotten man. It's no foregone conclusion that he'll lose his starting spot. The additions to the front seven not only have improved the size, strength, and talent level considerably, but has afforded the greatest depth at the most necessary positions (for rest and matchup reasons) on the defensive side of the ball.
The later round draft choices will all contribute on special teams, which is huge. I can see Goethel and Ware excelling in kick coverage, as both are aggressive, hard-hitting players who love to attack the ball.
McFadden, Ware, and Stevie Brown give us much-needed depth in the Nickel and Dime packages, and competition at safety and nickel corner, which will push the entire defense to improve.
All in all, the additions we've made have addressed major issues like run defense, while ensuring we added depth and talent to both our pass rush and our secondary, not to mention special teams.
We have John Marshall in his second year as coordinator with an embarrassment of blitzing options (please, please!), and a new line coach in Mike Waufle who is one of the most respected in the business and is known for getting the most from his players.
I say without hyperbole that if everything works out according to plan, we could have a very, very special and dangerous defense for years to come. The key cogs are all young, aggressive, and ready to bring this team back to glory.