Oakland Raiders: Most Important X-Factor at Each Defensive Position Group
How good can this new Oakland Raiders offense really be in 2015?
Despite what last season's 3-13 record might indicate, Oakland's defense actually showed a lot of potential. Now, with another offseason's worth of reinforcements, the defense looks capable of being able to keep up with any NFL offense on a weekly basis.
The success of the defense as a whole depends largely on the big names like Khalil Mack, Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson. But it's just as dependent on X-factors at each position group.
How these other players perform will be the difference between the defense being a direct factor in more wins or the defense once again showing flashes but ultimately coming up short when it counts.
Defensive Line: Mario Edwards Jr.
Mario Edwards Jr. played all along the defensive line while in college. Because of this, the first question asked when the Raiders drafted him in the second round was regarding how Edwards would fit into the lineup.
Following Oakland's selection of Edwards, the San Jose Mercury News' Jerry McDonald noted, "The Raiders plan on Edwards to work as a rush end from the weak side as well as inside in some formations."
Given the Raiders need for a defensive end that can get to the quarterback with some consistency, it would be ideal for Edwards to fill in at the position. However, while he has the skills and the ability, he had a grand total of only eight sacks in three college seasons.
Because of Oakland's need at the position, the general lack of better options and the fact that he was taken in the second round, Edwards has a very good shot at winning the starting job for the upcoming season.
Other options include reserve C.J. Wilson and fellow rookie Max Valles, who's still extremely raw and one-dimensional as a pass-rusher. The table is set for Edwards to secure the job going forward.
As a second-round pick, Edwards is dealing with big expectations, and he'll be asked to meet them right away. Too often while in college, his play was far below his actual potential. The Raiders can't afford to have that happen. The defensive line is depending on Edwards being the player the Raiders believe he's capable of being.
If Edwards does play to his full abilities, the Raiders will suddenly have a very good defensive line. But if he doesn't, the unit will find itself in a similar position as last season, with one end of the line being ineffective on too many plays.
The Raiders gambled with the addition of Edwards. For the sake of the entire defensive line, it has to pay off.
Linebacker: Sio Moore
Most of the talk regarding the linebackers in Oakland has revolved around the development of Khalil Mack and the addition of a true middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton. The player who's been largely left out of the discussion is weak-side linebacker and incumbent starter Sio Moore.
It's odd that someone as boisterous and energetic as Moore can somehow be having a quiet offseason, but that's the case. It hasn't helped that he's still in the process of returning from a major hip injury. But as Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen points out in the video above, Moore could, in fact, be the biggest difference-maker at the position.
As Bowen notes, "You look at that weak-side linebacker position out in Oakland, that's the playmaking position." He looks at players like Lavonte David, Lance Briggs and Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks as examples of the impact a weak-side linebacker can have.
Mack is going to continue to get most of the attention from defenses. That should free up Moore to do some real damage, particularly as a pass-rusher off the edge opposite Mack.
It'll be up to Moore to make defenses pay for focusing too much on Mack, and he has the ability. He's an aggressive tackler, he has a nose for the ball and he's shown that he can be effective both as a run-stopper and a pass-rusher.
Lofton will be a steady force in the middle, and Mack will continue to develop. The difference-maker will be Moore. If he can return to full health and play to his full potential, the Raiders will find themselves with one of the most explosive and dangerous linebacking corps in the NFL.
Cornerback: D.J. Hayden
This is the obvious choice, but it's difficult to overstate just how important D.J. Hayden's performance is to the cornerbacks, and the defense as a whole, this upcoming season.
Look at the defensive line, and you can point at Justin Tuck as a reliable producer. At linebacker, you have Khalil Mack. At safety, there's Charles Woodson. But at cornerback, there's no one.
It's almost shocking when you look at the Raiders' cornerback situation and realize just how little proven production you find. Because of that, the responsibility falls to Hayden, the veteran of the group, to take this unit and lead it.
Hayden has yet to play a full season. But when he has been on the field, he's shown flashes of the player the Raiders were hoping he would be when they drafted him. As Bleacher Report's Chris Simms notes, "He has top-tier cover skills."
This unit has a lot of talent in players like T.J. Carrie, Keith McGill and Neiko Thorpe. What it's missing is a true No. 1 cornerback to lead the unit. If Hayden can finally secure that role, it'll allow every other cornerback to play deeper on the depth chart, where they can be more effective.
A healthy, effective Hayden turns this unit into a surprisingly effective one. An unreliable, underperforming Hayden turns this unit into one of the weakest in the league.
Hayden's play alone will determine the success or failure of the entire cornerback unit, which makes him the biggest X-factor at the position.
Safety: Nate Allen
Last season, veteran Charles Woodson was a model of consistency. Even at 37 years old, he was one of Oakland's best players all season. Unfortunately, there was a revolving door at the safety spot next to him.
At various points throughout the 2014 season, you could've found Tyvon Branch, Larry Asante or Brandian Ross, among others, getting playing time next to Woodson.
To address this problem, the Raiders went out in free agency and made Nate Allen one of their more expensive signings.
While with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, Allen finished with 62 total tackles, one sack, four interceptions, a forced fumble and three fumbles recovered. However, as pointed out in a report on ESPN.com, that didn't stop the Eagles' pass defense from ending the season ranked as the second worst in the league.
NFL.com's Marc Sessler expressed a similar lack of confidence in the move, noting, "Too often fried with the Eagles, Allen is hardly a premier safety."
Despite being the team that added Allen, the Raiders apparently don't seem to disagree with these assessments. Despite signing Allen back in March, Oakland signed restricted free agent Sean Richardson to an offer sheet (via NFL.com's Marc Sessler) and put in a waiver claim for D.J. Swearinger (via ESPN NFL reporter Field Yates).
The Green Bay Packers matched the offer for Richardson, and Swearinger ended up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that also put in a waiver claim and had higher priority. Richardson is a guy with starter potential, and Swearinger is a proven starter.
When he was signed, it was assumed that Allen was brought in to secure the safety spot across from Woodson. But since he arrived, the Raiders haven't really shown much confidence in a player that they just gave a four-year, $23 million deal to with $11.8 million guaranteed, per the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson.
Perhaps the Raiders truly intended to use Allen in a reserve role despite the starter money they just gave him. But now, he's at the top of the depth chart alongside Woodson, and the success of the secondary is largely dependent on the success of this tandem.
That means that Allen needs to play a lot better than he did last year.
If he doesn't, the Oakland safeties as a whole could be heading for another mediocre season, something that would have a huge negative impact on the entire defense.
Bonus X-Factor: Sebastian Janikowski
Sebastian Janikowski still has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. He also remains somewhat unreliable. In 2015, he hit 86 percent of his field-goal tries, leaving him tied for 12th in the league with four other kickers. In other words, he was average.
The biggest difference this upcoming season is the changes that have been made to extra points. For his career, Janikowski has made 482 out of 485 extra points, having missed one in 2003, 2004 and 2008. Since 2009, he's been perfect on 186 attempts.
The extra point being moved back to the 15-yard line won't mean anything to Janikowski in terms of distance. But it will bring up the issues he's had at times with accuracy.
Where Janikowski really becomes a factor is in field goals. He still has the leg, but his accuracy has been unreliable. In 2012, Janikowski hit a career-high 91.2 percent of his field goals. But the following season, he dropped way down to 70 percent, his lowest percentage since 2005 and the third worst of his career.
Janikowski has only hit better than 90 percent in a season once, and he's hit 80.2 percent over his career.
Ironically, Janikowski's power is partially to blame. Given his leg strength, he's often sent out to take a kick that most kickers wouldn't be asked to attempt. Still, that only accounts for part of his misses.
With the offense and defense being rebuilt and expected to go through some growing pains, Janikowski, as a 16-year veteran, has to be consistently accurate. The team has to have the confidence of knowing that getting within field-goal range is going to equal points.
You can check out the Raiders' most important X-factor at each offensive position group here.
Who do you think are Raiders' biggest X-factors on defense? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on at Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.