When it comes to strong safeties that can pack a wallop, the Las Vegas Raiders boast quite the redundancy in Johnathan Abram and Tyree Gillespie. Both are ferocious hit men at the position and are assets against the run.
But it’s playing deep in a two-high safety look that leaves plenty to be desired with either Abram or Gillespie. Of the two, the latter is the much cheaper and younger option than the former. Which beckons the question: Can Gillespie impress the new Raiders staff in a similar way he did the previous regime (enough so to make him a fourth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft)?
The second-year safety certainly has the requisite physicality and the 4.38 40-yard dash straight-line speed that’s enticing. Solidly built at 6-foot and 207 pounds, there were flashes of his willingness to get his nose dirty and stymie the run in his limited snaps on defense (he played a total of 13 defensive snaps) last season. The ability to diagnose and snuff out the run for the Raiders was something he did regularly as a Missouri Tiger in college.
Gillespie’s ability to read, react, and burst to the ball carrier above will always open the eyes of any defensive coaching staff. And new Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will be no different.
What’s still unknown is how Gillespie will hold up in coverage at the pro level. While he did align in and roam the single-high safety spot for Missouri during his playing days, and hung in man coverage against Florida tight end (now an Atlanta Falcon) Kyle Pitts, the zero collegiate interceptions is a big tell. The lack of takeaways stands out just as much as Gillespie’s tackling strength. That’s a big ‘what if’ when it comes to the safety.
What if Gillespie did get more snaps, how does he hold up in coverage? What if he’s a one-dimensional defender who has a nose for the ball and ability to bring the pain as a tackler, but little as a cover man?
Valid questions, but the upside is there.
While it remains to be seen if Graham and the defensive coaching staff can coax more out of Abram, his coverage ability has been on full display for two full seasons and the returns haven’t been encouraging. Opposing quarterbacks that target Abram completed nearly 80 percent of those throws for 483 yards and five total touchdowns. The 6-foot, 205-pound Mississippi State product is a throwback strong safety that is a better run defender and tackler than cover man.
It was an equally big tell when the Raiders decided not to use the fifth-year option on Abram, the No. 27th overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Which brings us right back to Gillespie. He could be considered a dark horse candidate for the starting strong safety spot opposite promising second-year free safety Tre’Von Moehrig. Along with Abram, Gillespie will compete with veteran Duron Harmon, who was steeped in the New England Patriots-style defense. Unless Gillespie can show he’s an equal enforcer to Abram but has better cover skills, his spot on the roster is likely reserve safety and active special teamer.
Gillespie did rack up 150 snaps on special teams (49 percent of the Raiders total special teams snaps) last year. That number should either increase or stay the same as his speed and strength plays well into the role of gunner on punt return coverage and even the kick return group.
Gillespie has physicality and speed in spades and if he isn’t a regular on defense, the 23-year-old has all the tools to be a mainstay on special teams while developing his craft as a safety in Graham’s defense.
If anything, his presence on the roster this year and potentially beyond, should negate the absence of Abram — if/when that arrives.