With a new coordinator and several new faces that are expected to play a significant role, Las Vegas Raiders’ defense will look a lot different than it did a year ago. That’s a good sign as the team ranked third to last in points allowed per game last season, but it also means there are a lot of question marks heading into training camp. Plenty of starting spots will be up for grabs and opportunities are readily available for role players as well.
With so much ambiguity, which players have the most to prove at each defensive position group for the Silver and Black?
Defensive Line: Solomon Thomas
Speaking of free-agent signings, the Raiders inked defensive tackle Solomon Thomas to a one-year $3.25 million contract this offseason. The 2017 No. 3 overall pick comes from San Francisco where he failed to live up to expectations.
Thomas played in 48 games – starting 30 – for the San Francisco 49ers and only managed to rack up 95 total tackles and six sacks. Toward the end of his tenure in the Bay Area, he saw a significantly diminished role, going from 12 and 13 starts in 2017 and 2018 to just three in 2019 before missing 14 games in 2020 with a torn ACL. However, he gets a fresh start with the move to Las Vegas.
The defensive lineman will reportedly play on the inside as a three-technique defensive tackle with the Silver and Black. That’s good to hear as he throve in the role at Stanford but was used up and down the 49ers’ defensive line and took more snaps on the edge than inside. Also, the Raiders cut ties defensive tackle Maurice Hurst this offseason so there’s a little more breathing room for Thomas.
However, it’s still far too early for him to exhale and let his guard down. Jonathan Hankins and Quinton Jefferson are the favorites to start, meaning Thomas will likely be battling it out for a second-string spot on the depth chart. It will probably be him, Darius Philon, Kendal Vickers and Darius Stills fighting to make the roster and the two that have the best camp will be the winners.
Linebacker: Tanner Muse
When the Raiders used a third-round pick on Tanner Muse in last year’s draft, it was widely considered a reach. Muse was a linebacker/safety hybrid type of player in college who is trying to make the switch to full-time linebacker in the pros. According to reports, he was struggling to make that transition during last year’s training camp and ended up succumbing to a foot injury that cost him the entire season.
This year, Muse is healthy and ready to go heading into camp, however, he’ll be facing a new set of challenges.
Nick Kwiatkowski and Cory Littleton return as the team’s two most notable backers, while Nicholas Morrow is coming off a career year to round out the starting lineup. There’s an open competition behind those three and with some of the moves the organization has made this offseason, last year’s third-round pick might be in hot water.
Las Vegas signed former first-round pick and coverage linebacker Darron Lee in free agency and spent a third-round pick on Divine Deablo, another converted safety. The latter is probably more troubling for Muse since Deablo was taken just a year after he was, in the same round with a very similar skillset. Also, we can’t forget about Oakland native and UNLV alum Javin White who turned quite a few heads last August.
While Muse will probably still earn a roster spot given his youth and the investment the organization made in him via a top-100 pick, but he’ll need to have a strong performance in training camp to earn a role beyond special teams.
Safety: Karl Joseph
After spending a year away, Karl Joseph is back in his old threads. Joseph had a down year in Cleveland, surrendering career-highs in receiving yards and touchdowns allowed and passer rating when targeted, with marks of 354, seven and 121.9. However, he gets a fresh re-start with the Silver and Black and a great opportunity to earn a starting spot.
Last year’s starting strong safety, Johnathan Abram, struggled mightily, earning the lowest PFF grade out of 99 qualifying safeties in the league. As a result, the organization brought Joseph back and drafted two more safeties – three depending on what position you consider Deablo – signaling that they aren’t quite sold on Abram as the starter moving forward.
Given that it’s an open competition and the fact Joseph and Abram are similar types of players, this might be the former’s most important training camp since his rookie season. Whoever plays better in August will likely have better positioning on the depth chart, so this is the perfect opportunity for the 2016 first-round pick to revive his career.
Cornerback: Damon Arnette
It was a rough rookie year for Damon Arnette in 2020. He was getting torched in coverage on the field, and a couple of injuries combined with some time on the reserve/COVID19 list stunted his growth. To make matters worse, this offseason wasn’t kind to Arnette either.
The Raiders brought in veteran cornerback Casey Hayward via free agency, who played for new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for four years in Los Angeles. Given their history working together, one must think that Bradley hand-picked Hayward as “his guy” to take over one of the starting corner spots. The 10-year pro throve in the coach’s system and has a long track record of success in general.
That means Arnette going from year one starter to back up as a sophomore is a very real possibility. Also, the organization brought in Rasul Douglas from the Carolina Panthers and drafted Nate Hobbs to go along with Nevin Lawson and Amik Robertson who were already on the roster, creating a rather crowded cornerback room.
Arnette’s seat is about as hot as can be, so he’ll need to have an impressive showing next month to avoid sliding down the depth chart.