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Raiders OTA Insights: Johnathan Abram lining up deep

Safety was the box enforcer last season; getting looks in 2-deep alignment this offseason

Miami Dolphins v Las Vegas Raiders
Safety Johnathan Abram is lining up in the two-deep safety look in Raiders OTAs after being a box safety the majority of last season.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Johnathan Abram lined up at strong safety across from free safety Tre’von Moehrig in the two-deep safety alignment during the Las Vegas Raiders OTAs. If that’s shocking to you — it’s surprising when you consider Abram was the box safety for much of last season — it shouldn’t be.

Head coach Josh McDaniels clued us all in on the team’s approach for incumbent players way back in March.

“I think everybody, for us, it’s going to be a clean slate,” McDaniels said at the NFL owners meeting. “I am really not as interested in what they’ve done as much as what we can do.”

That fresh start talk wasn’t frivolous. The new Raiders regime is allowing players to change perceived opinions and narratives. While the past isn’t going to be swept under the rug, the new coaching staff wants to see for themselves what the current crop of players can and can’t do.

This bodes well for Abram, a 2019 first-round pick (No. 27 overall pick) that didn’t see his fifth-year option picked by new general manager Dave Ziegler. In fact, the entire first-round class from the 2019 draft saw the fifth-year options declined by the Silver & Black. Letting Abram line up deep gives the hard-hitting enforcer-type safety the opportunity to showcase his coverage wares to new eyes. It’s an opportunity to learn a new defensive philosophy and flip the narrative he’s a liablity in coverage, not an asset. Add in it’s a contract year for Abram and he should have ample motivation to prove skeptics wrong.

Unfortunately for Abram, there’s plenty of film that shows cover skills haven’t been the Mississippi State product’s strong suit since entering the league. 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. Of that yardage, 251 were air yards (the distance the ball traveled from quarterback to intended target) and 232 were YAC (yards after the catch). 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.

Suffice it to say, having him play deep in the two-shell look may not be conducive to success.

Raiders new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is getting a look-see at Abram lining up as a deep safety, much to the mantra McDaniels preached earlier this offseason. As OTAs progress and training camp approaches, we’ll be able to see if Abram remains a deep strong safety. Preseason and the regular season opener will be solid tells, too.

One caveat of note is Graham’s defensive scheme. His most recent outing with the Giants showed he’s adept at both two-deep and single-high safety alignments. Often, his defense would line up in one particular alignment pre-snap and then shift right before or post snap to a different look. Thus, it could be Abram and Moehrig back deep only for the former to drop down into the box where he can use his frenetic energy and physicality to his advantage. Or, we could se the opposite: Moehrig as the single-high safety and Abram in the box only for the latter to sprint back deep.

The early OTA insight could just be the initial tinkering Graham and his defensive coaching staff are doing until the heavy lifting comes training camp and preseason tilts. How Graham uses Abram when the games count bears watching.

This much is true though. Graham has seen Abram up close before. When the Raiders played the New York Giants this past season (Graham was the G-Men’s defensive boss), Abram played all the defensive snaps and got Moss-ed by tight end Evan Ingram for a first-quarter score (picture below).

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at New York Giants
Giants tight end Evan Engram (88) leaps over Raiders safety Johnathan Abram for a first-quarter touchdown during the team’s Nov. 7 matchup this past season.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It’ll be interesting to see if Abram can once more claim is spot as the Raiders starting strong safety or if he loses snaps to free-agent addition Duron Harmon. While you’ll never confuse Harmon’s tackling ability for the wallop Abram packs, he provides a much better cover safety than No. 24. Harmon is versatile enough to play either safety spot and sports a career-stat line of 21 total interceptions. 38 pass deflections to go along with 315 total tackles in his nine years in the league.

Add into the mix 2021 fourth-round pick Tyree Gillespie — another strong tackler and hit man — and Roderic Teamer — who earned snaps on defense after Abram was lost for the season last year — and the competition at strong safety should produce a solid option opposite of Moehrig.

New defensive line boss Frank Okam may have been talking specifically about his trench warriors when he dropped this dime after Wednesday’s OTA session, but it can be applied across the board for the Raiders as a whole:

“Honestly, that’s the thing that kind of drives the NFL: You got to earn your right to have your job when the regular season starts,” Okam said during his press conference. “That makes the meetings go a little bit better, their focus better and the competition in practice even better. That’s really what you’re looking for each and every day.”