Oakland Raiders: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown, Depth-Chart Analysis
The Oakland Raiders have significantly upgraded their run defense and placed an immense amount of faith on a developing secondary.
The Raiders' front seven will consist of two free agents and a budding superstar at linebacker. While the secondary remains relatively unknown, it doesn’t mean these young talented players aren’t capable of putting together a respectable pass defense.
The results can ultimately go either way with first-time defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.
What is the current state of the defense three weeks away from training camp?
We’ll go through the depth chart from position to position on the defensive side of the ball and project who should hold their starting positions as well as who might fall by the wayside as competition heats up.
|Left Defensive End||Justin Tuck||Max Valles|
|Right Defensive End||Mario Edwards Jr.||Benson Mayowa|
The upgrade at defensive end opposite Justin Tuck poses some potential issues in pass-rushing situations, but second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr. comes into Oakland with a lot to prove to his critics.
Edwards will have the opportunity to put his underachieving years at Florida State behind him and showcase his maximum potential as a pro. He’s locked in as the starting defensive end barring an injury or very poor showing in training camp.
Tuck led the team in sacks last year, and the Raiders hope to squeeze another solid season out of the 11-year veteran. Though he projects as a Week 1 starter, strong training camp performances from Benson Mayowa or Max Valles could force a rotational sequence opposite Edwards.
Tuck recorded a plus-4.4 grade against the run, while Edwards made 11 tackles resulting in a loss at Florida State in 2014. Both defensive ends played well against the run, but Norton must generate pressure from players closer to the snap.
Unless Tuck reminds Raider Nation of the player who wreaked havoc for Big Blue in the Meadowlands, he’ll rotate with Mayowa or Valles as a part-time starter.
Valles has more upside, but Mayowa holds the edge as the primary reserve after playing 16 games for the Raiders last season.
|Right Defensive Tackle||Dan Williams||C.J. Wilson|
|Left Defensive Tackle||Justin Ellis||Stacy McGee|
There are 649 pounds of mass clogging the middle between starters Dan Williams and Justin Ellis.
Williams comes to Oakland after lining up as a 0-technique nose tackle with the Arizona Cardinals. Teaming up with Ellis could pose major problems for opposing interior offensive linemen trying to keep these juggernauts from disrupting running plays or pressuring quarterbacks.
Neither Williams nor Ellis provided pressure up the middle in previous seasons, but together the duo could supplement what looks like a defense in need of front-line pressure.
C.J. Wilson returns on a two-year, $4.35 million deal but fits in as an ideal 3-4 defensive tackle as opposed to his previous role as a defensive end. The Raiders have three young talents at defensive end who should get extended snaps going forward, leaving Wilson as a primary reserve for Williams and Ellis at defensive tackle.
Last season, Stacy McGee took a step back, only playing in 11 games after appearing in 15 games (five starts) in his rookie campaign during the 2013 season. He’ll compete for a roster spot with undrafted rookie Leon Orr, who hasn't shown much during the offseason thus far.
|Strong-Side Linebacker||Khalil Mack||Malcolm Smith||Neiron Ball|
|Inside Linebacker||Curtis Lofton||Ben Heeney|
|Weak-Side Linebacker||Sio Moore||Ray-Ray Armstrong|
This particular position will serve as the heart of the Raiders defense, with strong-side linebacker Khalil Mack leading the way. Raider Nation hopes Sio Moore returns to training camp with the energy and passion he’s known for.
The addition of inside linebacker Curtis Lofton completes a versatile, high-end linebacker corps.
Both Mack and Moore have pass-rushing abilities. Head coach Jack Del Rio said Mack projects as a more physical version of Von Miller, per NFL.com writer Marc Sessler. Moore has recorded 7.5 sacks in two seasons and should boost his sack numbers pending the ability to start a full season as the weak-side linebacker.
Lofton is a tackling machine, solid coverage linebacker and valuable addition to the run defense. Opposing running backs fortunate enough to squeeze through the 649-pound wall at defensive tackle must evade Lofton’s closing speed and snap instincts as the second layer of the Raiders' rush defense.
All three of the aforementioned linebackers have a stronghold on their starting positions, but 3-4 sub-packages should allow rookie Ben Heeney extra snaps on the field next to Lofton.
Heeney impressed during OTAs and minicamp as a signal-caller on defense, per ESPN’s Bill Williamson, earning the trust of the coaching staff as a high-IQ inside linebacker.
Ray-Ray Armstrong also earned early praise from the Raiders coaching staff, per Raiders.com writer Eddie Paskal. A continuation of solid practices should pencil him in as the primary reserve linebacker on the weak side behind Moore.
Malcolm Smith has yet to stand out as a performer at practice but likely steps in at strong-side linebacker when Mack puts his hand in the dirt as a defensive end.
At this point, Neiron Ball’s role remains undefined as he adjusts to the professional level. His speed and tackling ability make him a valuable asset as a blitz linebacker, but most of his work will pay off on special teams coverage.
|Right Cornerback||Travis Carrie||Keith McGill||Dexter McDonald|
|Left Cornerback||D.J. Hayden||Neiko Thorpe|
The tide could be turning against Hayden after a slow start to his pro career due to injuries, but it’s still important for the former first-round pick to perform well during training camp. Hayden is going to see significant playing time in 2015 whether he retains his position as the starter or lines up as the nickelback.
McGill provides the height (6'3") the Raiders don’t have in the secondary to match bigger wide receivers. As a result, he's a more attractive option to match up against A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson, who are all on the Raiders' schedule this year.
McGill’s training camp performance could potentially help him usurp Hayden as the starter leading up to Week 1 of the upcoming season. Ironically, seventh-round pick Travis Carrie’s starting position remains safe after allowing only one touchdown in 568 snaps during the 2014 season.
Neiko Thorpe is on the outside looking in, but Silver & Black Pride's Levi Damien reported that he played well during mandatory minicamp. For now, Thorpe maintains his spot as the No. 4 cornerback over Dexter McDonald, who has a lot of talent but needs time on the field to show it.
McDonald should make the active roster, but he won’t make a significant impact until the 2016 season.
|Strong Safety||Nate Allen||Brandian Ross|
|Free Safety||Charles Woodson||Jonathan Dowling|
Nate Allen brings over 10 career interceptions over the span of four seasons as Oakland's designated ball hawk. The Raiders are thin at safety, which solidifies Allen as the center fielder within the secondary reading the quarterback’s eyes and forcing some turnovers.
Charles Woodson maintains his spot as a starter, but it’ll be interesting to see whether he flips over to strong safety since Allen poses a much higher threat for interceptions.
Can Woodson’s 38-year-old body withstand a full season intermittently supporting the run in the box? His game has also slowly eroded in pass coverage. He allowed the most yards after the catch (355) among safeties in the NFL in 2014.
Despite Woodson starting every game since returning to Oakland in 2013, it’s time to start contemplating his replacement. Brandian Ross was a solid fill-in for oft-injured safety Tyvon Branch, who moved on with the Kansas City Chiefs during the offseason.
Ross started 23 games in the last two seasons, recording two interceptions, nine passes defensed and two sacks in that span. He could work himself into a rotation with Woodson if the 18-year veteran's play continues to deteriorate.
Jonathan Dowling is the most intriguing of the Raiders safeties because of his ability to force turnovers at a high rate, proven in his days at Western Kentucky.
Williamson acknowledged Dowling as a special talent capable of making an immediate impact. "The 2014 seventh-round draft pick played very little last season because of injuries but has ability, and the Raiders have a need at safety," he wrote. "If he progresses this summer, I could see Dowling taking a big leap on this list next year. He will be given the chance to show himself."
If Dowling puts on a show during training camp, he could pose a threat to Ross as the front-runner for Woodson’s safety position in 2016.
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All statistics are provided by Profootball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Player contracts courtesy of Spotrac.