Now that the Las Vegas Raiders’ playoff hopes are about as dead as can be, I’m going to shift the focus of the X-factors column to younger players who have something to prove rather than guys who will impact the scoreboard for the next four weeks. Granted, there might be some crossover between those two types of players.
This week, Las Vegas will take on the Covid-19 depleted Cleveland Browns as 1-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook, for a unique Saturday afternoon matchup.
The Browns are in the midst of the AFC playoff picture as one of the five teams that tied for the conference’s second and third wild card spots, and they’re only a game behind the Ravens for the AFC North lead. That means Cleveland will have plenty of motivation for Saturday’s matchup, which could make things more difficult for Las Vegas’ young players to prove themselves.
Malcolm Koonce hasn’t seen much playing time this year — he’s had a 22 total defensive snaps — but he’s managed to make an impact in limited action.
In Koonce’s two games of regular-season experience, he’s racked up two sacks and three total pressures while only rushing the passer 12 times. While the small sample size inflates this number, he leads all edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush productivity (27.8) metric over the last couple of weeks.
Beyond the stat sheet, the third-round pick has shown plenty of promise on tape as a rusher. He has a good initial burst off the edge and has developed a strong long arm move, and he’s proved that he’s deserving of some more playing time during the final month of the season.
Malcolm Koonce has the highest pass-rush productivity among NFL edge defenders the last two weeks. Given he’s seen limited snaps but still encouraging to see from the rookie. pic.twitter.com/G8yRyphVwU— Raider Nation Boston (@RaiderNationBOS) December 14, 2021
However, Koonce’s run defense could use some work and might be one reason why he’s seen limited action so far. He has yet to record a tackle against the run during his limited regular-season action, and he struggled in that area during the preseason as well with a 6.2-yard average depth of tackle and a 55.0 PFF grade as a run defender.
Cleveland’s offense is built around the ground game so Koonce should have plenty of opportunities to show how much growth he’s made on Saturday. He’ll be facing off against second-year tackle Jedrick Willis and rookie James Hudson, both of whom have struggled as run blockers this year.
Over the last couple of games, Divine Deablo has made some headlines. First for his impressive play on the field against the Washington Football Team, and this past week for stepping up as a leader and calling out his teammates’ effort in practice.
Injuries across the roster combined with what he’s has shown in practice have led to some increased playing time for Deablo. In Weeks 1 through 12, he registered 27 defensive snaps, but he’s been on the field for 90 plays in the team’s last two games and has made the most of the opportunity.
The rookie has stood out the most as a run defender with an 82.0 run defense grade from PFF that ranks first among all qualifying linebackers over the last couple of weeks. He even leads Azeez Al-Shaair, who is currently in second, by seven points. For comparison's sake, the difference between second and third place is only 0.5.
Deablo also boasts four run stops and a run stop percentage of 9.8 during that timeframe, both of which rank in the top 20 at the position. That should come in handy against the run-heavy Browns.
However, the Virginia Tech product has struggled a bit in coverage. He’s been targeted nine times in the last two games, allowing all nine to be completed for 83 yards and a passer rating of 105.1. Those numbers aren’t terrible by any means, but there certainly is some room for improvement and he’ll be tested this week.
The Browns have an interesting collection of offensive weapons. Kareem Hunt is unlikely to play this weekend, but fellow running back Demetric Felton can also make plays in the passing game and played quite a bit of wide receiver in college. Tight end David Njoku was on the COVID-19 list last week but could return on Saturday and is a tough cover, while his running mate, Austin Hooper, is no slouch either.
That means Deablo could be in for some tough one-on-one matchups in coverage all game long, but it’s also an opportunity for him to continue to show growth and potentially, lock down a starting spot for next year heading into the offseason.
During the Raiders’ bye week, I wrote about how Solomon Thomas had been arguably the team’s best interior pass rusher and was seemingly turning his career around. He had 19 pressures in seven games and a PFF pass-rush grade of 71.3. However, it’s been a completely different story since the week off.
In the six games following the bye, Thomas has only managed to accumulate eight pressures and a 54.0 grade as a rusher. That’s the difference between nearly three pressures per game to a little more than one and over 17 grade points.
Unlike the previous two X-factors, the veteran defensive tackle isn’t a rookie, but he is in a similar position down the stretch of the season.
At 26, Thomas is still young enough to be a building block for the Raiders’ defense over the next few years. However, he only signed a one-year contract in the offseason so the organization can easily move on from him if he doesn’t show promise over these last four games.
Obviously, that means this next month is extremely important for Thomas’ future and unfortunately, he has a tough draw this weekend.
The highest-paid left guard and the second-highest-paid right guard in the NFL play for the same team: the Browns. Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller have been living up to their contracts this season, as they currently rank as PFF’s second- and fourth-best guards, respectively.
Bitonio is the better pass blocker of the two with just 10 pressures surrendered on the campaign - tied for third among guards with at least 10 starts - and Teller isn’t too far behind him with just 19. Cleveland’s center J.C. Tretter is also a stud, ranking eighth at his position in PFF’s grading system and surrendering eight pressures all year.
That’s some stiff competition for Thomas, but also an opportunity for him to beat some of the best interior offensive linemen in the league and bolster his case to stick around for the long haul.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for John Simpson.
At the beginning of training camp, he didn’t have many expectations and was going to play a backup role on the team. Then Richie Incognito goes down about halfway through August with an injury that would keep him sidelined all year and elevate Simpson on the depth chart. After Denzelle Good tore an ACL in Week 1, the 2020 fourth-round pick went from an afterthought to the best guard on the roster in less than a month.
Even Simpson’s play on the field has been up and down. He’s had four games with an overall PFF grade of 60 or better and five at 50 or lower, he’s allowed zero pressures in three contests and four in four others.
While the good performances are encouraging, the Clemson product needs to show more consistency down the stretch of the season. The offensive line is a position where volatile play can be dangerous and very detrimental to the offense’s success, so he needs to steady the ship to keep his starting spot intact.
Otherwise, finding another guard will be a high - or even higher - priority for Las Vegas this offseason.
I’ll start this section by acknowledging that there’s a chance Tyron Johnson won’t even play as the Raiders reverted him to the practice squad after the Chiefs game. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the call-up again this week, and I don’t see why the team wouldn’t make that move.
The Silver and Black have been looking for a wide receiver that can stretch the field ever since Henry Ruggs’ release. And after five games with only six catches for 173 yards and one touchdown - with three catches, 102 yards and the one touchdown coming in one game - I think it’s safe to say the DeSean Jackson experiment hasn’t worked out.
Jackson turned 35 earlier this month and isn’t/shouldn’t be part of the team’s future plans, but Johnson, who will be 26 in January, could be. However, the organization’s decision-makers can’t accurately make that determination if he only plays one offensive snap for the team, his current total for the year.
It’s time to let the speed demon loose and, at the very least, see what he can do for you. The former Charger might not replace all of what was lost with Ruggs, but Johnson could prove to be a valuable piece for the offense moving forward.
Also, it’d be worth it to see what he can do against an impressive secondary like the Browns’. Denzel Ward (77.7), Greedy Williams (69.9) and Greg Newsome (68.9) all have PFF coverage grades floating around the 70-mark or better, and all three rank inside the top-40 among cornerbacks with Ward holding the 12th spot for that metric.