New Las Vegas Raiders linebackers coach Antonio Pierce might be in his first season as an NFL coach but make no mistake about it, he knows the league well.
“Pretty simple,” the former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion responded when asked about his transition to coaching during a press conference after Wednesday’s mandatory minicamp practice. “Played in the NFL, I was on ESPN talking about the NFL and then four years in college.”
Pierce played for Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants and served as a linebackers coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive coordinator at Arizona State from 2018 to 2021 under Herm Edwards, so he has no shortage of strong mentors in the league. However, the game and even the position he played – and now coaches – has changed quite a bit over the last several years.
“I was a small linebacker coming out, 6’1” and 228 [pounds],” Pierce said about how the position has evolved. “Now, they’re around 220 [pounds] and that’s okay. And I think just the ability for these guys to play all three downs, to be able to cover. Obviously, your elite tight ends, running backs and maybe slot receiver, that’s changed.”
“When I played it was like 21 and 12 personnel, downhill. I was going against Larry Allen and Emmitt Smith my rookie year and I was like, ‘Wow’. The game is much more perimeter, vertical, not so much downhill smashmouth football.”
Football has certainly changed since Pierce retired in 2009. The passing game is more important than ever and as a result, a greater emphasis has been placed on pass rushers and coverage defenders, while linebackers have seemingly become less important. Or at least in the way people used to think of the position.
Gone are the days of a 250-pound bruising linebacker who wears a neckroll and crop-top jersey. Instead, athleticism has been emphasized at the position as college safeties sliding down to the second level in the pros has become a common practice recently. A great example of this is the Raiders’ second-year linebacker Divine Deablo, who primarily played strong safety at Virginia Tech and has caught the eye of his new coach.
“Yeah, that guy has a lot of talent,” Pierce said of Deablo. “Obviously transitioning from that safety position to linebacker. But there’s a lot of physical traits there that I can’t coach. The mental aspect is where we’re working on and he’s doing a great job of that. What you see is a guy that’s real eager and happy, loves being around the building, loves being in the building, loves ball. I think those are all traits that you want from a linebacker, especially a young guy.”
Deablo was a late bloomer last year, not seeing significant playing time until Week 13, but he managed to finish strong with 45 total tackles in 5 games and a 71.8 PFF run-defense grade. Who knows what he can do with a full year as a starter and a coach who played the position for nine years in the NFL?
But the rookie wasn’t the only standout linebacker to wear the silver and black last season. Denzel Perryman was a tackle machine, ranking sixth in the league with 154 total tackles and earning a Pro Bowl appearance. Naturally, Pierce was asked about his best-returning player at the position and spoke highly of Perryman’s swagger and leadership.
“Have you not seen his PJs he wears to the morning meetings?” the coach said in response to his player wearing a beanie in 100-degree weather. “I kind of threw me off. I mean, he’s got swag…I’ve known him for a while obviously, maybe not on a personal level, but from afar. What he brings is not even just swag, but attitude and professionalism. I’ll say more importantly leadership.
“When he talks the room gets a little quieter and you want that from somebody on your defense, and you really like that from the linebacker position. Being biased a little bit, you want the heart of your team in that linebacker room. And he really carries that and obviously has fun doing it. I think that makes my job easier as well.”
Las Vegas didn’t acquire Perryman until the very end of training camp last year, which I’d imagine made it more difficult for him to step up as a leader. So it’s good to hear that he’s coming into that role now that he isn’t joining the team a week or two before the regular season.
Pierce also spoke highly of Kenny Young’s leadership, who signed with the Raiders not too long ago.
“Kenny has played a lot of ball. He’s traveled a bit, but he’s got experience. He’s got a wealth of knowledge that he’s bringing to the room that he’s been in other places and little tidbits that we can all learn from. But I think more importantly, he’s a guy that knows how to be a pro. He works at it in individual drills. He works at it in practice. He comes to meetings prepared. He’s obviously giving himself a chance to be a good football player.”
One backer that could benefit from Perryman’s and Young’s experience is undrafted free agent Darien Butler. Butler played for Pierce at ASU and seems to be making the most of his opportunity so far, according to his college coach.
“I was with Darien for four years. [So far in mini camp,] same thing I saw in college, a guy that’s eager, has been through adversity his whole life. This is nothing new, undrafted, chip on his shoulder, fiery. Eager to play, eager to learn, take every rep that he can possibly [take] mentally and physically, giving himself a chance to hopefully make this team.”
Butler will likely be competing with Young for a roster spot during training camp so unfortunately, one of the two linebackers who have been drawing praise from their coach will likely have to go. However, this has been a position that has plagued the Raiders for several years so it’s encouraging to hear that serval players are standing out positively thus far.