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Mirror Image: A Raiders blueprint?

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Las Vegas would be wise to look at how New England built its defense

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams
Las Vegas will likely need to spend some coin this offseason to attract talent, but perhaps it would be wiser to land big-ticket items who are more productive than expensive Chandler Jones (55).
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Graham getting an encore performance as defensive boss or getting let go after one year is up for debate. Where there’s no discourse, when it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders defense however, is the severe drought of talent.

Graham, who was brought in as a cerebral type coach who puts his players in the best possible position to succeed, was seen as a defensive coordinator who would orchestrate the Raiders into a respectable group — if not a difference-making unit. There’s been glimpses, but mental lapses and breakdowns have been ever present in 2022. The Raiders defense ranks 25th in points allowed (313) and 24th in yards yielded (4,745). For comparison’s sake, that’s 103 more points than the San Francisco 49ers’ top-ranked defense (210 points) and 884 more yards than the Philadelphia Eagles’ stingy defense (3,861).

While Graham’s coaching can be picked apart, spotlighting difference-making defenders on his unit is far more difficult — as is player execution.

Now, the Silver & Black isn’t devoid of defensive talent. Pass rusher Maxx Crosby blossomed into an elite run defender and quarterback hunter (he’s still developing at age 25 and leads the team in sacks with 11.5), Divine Deablo and Nate Hobbs are promising young talents at linebacker and cornerback, respectively. Yet, talent deprived is an apt description of the Raiders defense.

Graham is being asked to craft five star meals but instead of getting prime and choice ingredients, he’s been given items picked up at Grocery Outlet or Dollar General-type spots. There’s only so much a coach can cook up if he’s handed instant ramen.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Las Vegas Raiders
Patrick Graham’s Las Vegas Raiders defense is in the lower echelon of league rankings when it comes to points and yards allowed.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Las Vegas must augment its defensive roster this offseason via both free agency and the NFL Draft. And potentially via the trade market, too. Raiders radio host JT The Brick — someone who has insight that comes directly from the organization — hinted at a potential roster overhaul this offseason on his show last week when reflecting on Las Vegas’ 17-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14.

“(General manager) Dave Ziegler is going to be bringing in players who aren’t going to make mistakes like this,” JT said on his Raider Nation Radio show. “So that’s all I can tell you. It’s not rocket science.”

JT went on to say that Ziegler isn’t the type to bring in a bevy of players via free agency, but believes the team will go that route to find players that fit the Raiders new philosophy and scheme.

“They're going to get smarter players, better players. More disciplined players that fit their grading system and then they’re going to go to war with those guys,” JT noted. “The guys they scouted, they brought in, they don’t believe are going to make mental mistakes, they don't believe are going to be consistent penalty drive killers, they’re going to bring in guys who can turn their head on the football, and catch the football when it hits heir hands, and bring those guys in — and we’ll see if it works out. That’s all we can do.”

Graham, Ziegler and Josh McDaniels won’t have to look far to see what a well-developed and disciplined group can accomplish. They just have to look on the field this Sunday inside Allegiant Stadium when the Raiders host the New England Patriots. If there’s a blueprint for how to build the defense that fits the smart and productive mold, it’s Bill Belichick’s crew. The Patriot Way isn’t a popular thing amongst Raider Nation, but with Ziegler and McDaniels entrenched as general manager and head coach and both coming from that Belichick tree, it’s an inevitable shift for Las Vegas. (Especially considering Ziegler had a hand in prior Patriots draft classes that saw the team add quarterback Mac Jones and a bevy of others.)

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots
New England Patriots rookie cornerback Marcus Jones (25) is a third-round gem from the 2022 draft that’s contributed in all three phases (offense, defense, and special teams) this season.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

New England’s defense is built heavily on drafting prospects and developing them — something Las Vegas hasn’t done well, historically. The team’s leading tackler, inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, is a 2018 fifth-round find who blossomed. The Patriots second-leading tackler, safety Devin McCourty, is a long-tenured veteran taken in the first round of the 2010 draft. More recent draft hits like linebacker Josh Uche (second round of 2020 draft is second on the team with 10 sacks) and cornerback Marcus Jones (third round of 2022 draft contributes in all three phases — offense, defense, and special teams — and is a pure-speed weapon) helped augment the unit. Then there’s free agent home run Matt Judon (former Baltimore Raven who leads New England with 14.5 sacks; 27 total and counting since he became a Patriot in 2021).

The Raiders attempted something similar by landing veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones and, up until the team’s Week 13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers where he had three sacks, his signing was a dud.

The Patriots are apt to spread it’s draft capital evenly on offense and defense with three to four defensive prospects taken in last five draft classes. The Raiders have gone defense-heavy in drafts too since 2016, but the results are horrendous. Mega whiffs like D.J. Hayden, Jihad Ward, Obi Melifonwu, Johnathan Abram, Damon Arnette, Clelin Ferrell — to just name a few — litter the Silver & Bleak landscape. The embarrassing swings and misses are due to both scouting and player development. The Raiders can’t scout, can’t pick, and develop prospects, and unfortunately for the Silver & Black, that’s a time-honored tradition.

And that’s the three tiered approach Ziegler, McDaniels and the coaching staff must master: Identifying smart and productive players, drafting them, and developing them. It’ll be difficult for Graham or any other defensive boss, for that matter, to be successful without all that.