With all the pundits predicting the Oakland Raiders 2016-2017 success, the unquestioned strength of this team is its defense. In the midst of organized training activities, toughness and discipline are the standard for this team. In particular, the defense, which is led by All-Pro defensive end/linebacker Khalil Mack, linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and free safety Reggie Nelson, embody this type of play. Roles are being carved out, and depth is better than ever.
Justin Ellis and Dan Williams are the unquestioned leaders at nose tackle, especially on all running downs. Ellis and Williams both are tone setters with enough athletic ability to get a sack or two or three. They can continue to make the Raiders run defense incredibly stingy and tough. Backups like Leon Orr and Denico Autry will provide good pass rushing depth. Stacy McGee is also a solid backup. Mario Edwards Jr. is being nursed back into from his almost career-ending neck injury. Rookies Shilique Calhoun and Jihad Ward can provide instant pass rush off the bench. Calhoun provides versatility as an edge rusher and stand up linebacker. Ward is being groomed to be a three technique despite the fact that he played defensive end at the University of Illinois. Newly signed Damontre Moore could provide some production rushing the passer as well with some special teams reps too. Mack will be playing some defensive end as well but with all these players in the fold, he’ll likely see less double and triple teams.
Here’s where all the havoc lies. When Aldon Smith comes back, he’ll add his disruptive pass rushing skills to a group that includes Mack on one side and Irvin on the other. Mack has been one of the best run stopping linebackers since he came into the league and Irvin is a quality coverage linebacker with a knack for rushing the passer. He’s also earned the name “Baby Reggie” and is vocalizing his intent on being a leader on the defense after maturing in Seattle and helping win the Seahawks a Super Bowl. Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney are rangy, trusted playmakers at inside linebacker and Smith can play outside linebacker. Calhoun can play SAM backer. Korey Toomer, Neiron Bell and sixth round pick Cory James will all be on special teams and be fighting for play time in sub-packages that involve a lot of pass rushing and coverage responsibilities.
Sean Smith was obviously brought in to be the top cover corner. With his level of consistent play, physicality and intelligence he can help elevate the skill of David Amerson, former first round pick DJ Hayden, seventh round pick TJ Carrie, Neiko Thorpe and a number of unknown cornerbacks. These five corners are realistically going to be on the field via special teams and in nickel situations. Amerson can take the next step and become a lockdown corner leaving the battle for the top nickelback to be between Hayden, Carrie and Thorpe. Hayden has been a bust since he was the first draft pick in the Reggie McKenzie era and his fifth year option hasn’t been picked up yet. Carrie has been very promising after performing well as a returner, gunner, safety and corner. He could develop into something great if he’s allowed to just compete at corner and on special teams. Thorpe is recovering from injury and thus needs some time but he earned playing time last season and made some plays on special teams.
Reggie Nelson will be the unquestioned quarterback of the secondary at free safety. His experience, ball skills and knack for creating turnovers means he’ll always be around the ball. His toughest task will be making sure the young corners aren’t lost in coverage. Nelson and Smith should work well together with the fact that both were pro bowl players and respected leaders on the Chiefs and Bengals. The development of converted corner Keith McGill has been impressing according to team reports. McGill was a Junior College All-American safety and played safety at Utah. With 4.39 speed and a 39″ inch vertical, athleticism isn’t a problem. At 6’3 and 200lbs, McGill has all the physical tools to take over as potential replacement to Nelson but he just needs time to grow and develop under the tutelage of defensive back coach Marcus Robertson and assistant defensive backs coach and Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson. McGill in the mean time can make a name for himself on special teams as a gunner.
Nate Allen just gets this role until rookie first round pick Karl Joseph is fully healed from the torn ACL he suffered at West Virginia. Allen isn’t a better free safety than Reggie Nelson so being Joseph’s proxy at least from a coverage standpoint is what might have to happen. Allen is good insurance policy and has proven to be at least an above average starter in his career. McGill could also be an option here.