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Raiders 0utlook: Much ado about Johnathan Abram

Does the hard-hitting safety still have a place in Las Vegas?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
Safety Johnathan Abram (24) packs a wallop, but does the hard-hitting safety still have a place in the Raiders defense?
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In a different era of football, Johnathan Abram’s punishing style would be an ideal fit for the Silver & Black. But in the modern aerial showcase the NFL has become, the one-dimensional safety is often more liability than asset for the Las Vegas Raiders.

But with the clean slate new head honcho Josh McDaniels is bringing to the desert, does the hard-hitting safety still have a place in Las Vegas? If new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham lives up to his reputation as an innovative player’s coach — putting his defenders in the best possible position to succeed — the answer is: Perhaps.

Not a resounding endorsement is it? The perhaps is due to the answer being highly dependent on the coverages Graham rolls out as the architect of the new-look Raiders defense. Graham showed orchestrating the New York Giants defense he’s nimble and will use the two-deep safety look and the single-high safety set. Often, his G-Men would start out as two-high safeties before rotating into a single-high coverage to not give away or disguise the intended plan.

How does this involve Abram? He’s more effective down in the box where he can use his frenetic energy to be an enforcer against the run and/or thump pass catchers near the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his 116 total tackles (64 solo, 52 assists) and five tackles for loss. Thus, rotating down from the two-high shell would put Abram in a better position to succeed. On sheer physicality and bringing the pain alone, there are nary a Raiders defensive back that can match Abram’s prowess. Outside of 2021 fourth-round pick Tyree Gillespie, no other safety in the Vegas secondary can lay the lumber like the well-built 6-foot, 205-pounder.

The former first-round pick’s forte is most definitely not being a deep cover man. Abram played in 99 percent of the Raiders defensive snaps (954 total) before being lost to a shoulder injury after 14 games and in all those snaps, he was charted by Pro Football Reference (PFR) as allowing a 79.2 percent completion rate (57 of 72) for 483 yards and five touchdowns. But Abram did snag one pass for an interception. Quarterbacks targeting the strong safety sported a 112.0 rating. In Abram’s three seasons as a Raider, he’s snagged three interceptions, deflected 11 passes and racked up 207 total tackles. Thus, having him play deep in the two-shell look isn’t conducive to success.

Graham’s scheme relies heavily on cerebral players who can read, diagnose and react without hesitation. His defenders also tend to be versatile with the ability to adjust to what ever the offense throws their way. Be it man or zone — Graham’s shown the ability to deploy either or — players are called to rely on instincts to be play makers, but more importantly, do their job.

That’s where veteran Duron Harmon enters the mix.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints
While veteran Duron Harmon (21) will never be mistaken for the hitting power of Jonathan Abram, the veteran safety is much better in pass coverage than Abram.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Harmon will never be confused for the wallop Abram brings to the table, but where he’ll succeed more is in pass coverage. As the deep strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons (last year) and the deep free safety the Detroit Lions (in 2020), the grizzled veteran wasn’t the liability the Raiders incumbent safety has been. Playing in 92 percent of the Falcons snaps (1,072) and starting all 17 games, PFR charts Harmon allowing a 72.5 percent completion rate (29 of 40) for 393 yards and two scores. He picked off two passes in that span. Opposing quarterbacks sported a 99.3 rating going his way. With the Lions, Harmon accounted for 98 percent of the defensive snaps (1,103) and allowed a 67.5 percent completion rate (27 of 40) for 597 yards allowing a trio of touchdowns while picking off two passes. Signal callers throwing his way had a 114.6 quarterback rating.

In total, Harmon’s snatched 21 total interceptions. deflected 38 passes to go along with 315 total tackles in his nine-year career.

The versatile safety is also a known commodity to both McDaniels and Graham starting his career as New England’s third-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The first seven years of his career were with the Patriots before the one-year stints in Detroit and Atlanta.

So it could be a battle between Abram and Harmon to man the strong safety spot across from Moehrig in camp.

Still, Graham isn’t shy about utilizing things he learned as a pupil of defensive-minded Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. And one those schemes deployed by the Patriots was the three-safety look. The Pats’ “big nickel” alignment sees Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger play the brute-force enforcer role thanks to their physicality. The big nickel sees the trio of safeties New England deploys as do-it-alls who can seamlessly drop into the box to provide thump or drop back deep to cover. Much like Graham learned during his time in New England, that alignment leaves the opposing quarterback guessing the defense’s intentions.

Again, this is highly depends on the personnel afforded to Graham, but if he were inclined, he could deploy a trio safety look with Moehrig, Abram and Harmon all on the field together.

This much we know about Abram, he can play the role of Phillips and Dugger very well. But it’s his pass coverage chops that has the Raiders not exercising Abram’s fifth-year option as he’s a first rounder. The option would cost Vegas in the range of $7.9 million which is costly for a one-dimensional safety. Especially one that has a younger talent — Gillespie — who can provide similar oomph as an enforcer-type strong safety.