While there are still a few days between now and Sunday, it’s finally here, game week for the season opener for one of the most anticipated Las Vegas Raiders’ seasons in recent memory!
The Raiders have a tough draw in Week 1, though. There aren’t many teams in the league that had as good as, and maybe even better, of an offseason than Las Vegas but the Los Angeles Chargers are one of them.
The Chargers are led by a young ascending core of homegrown talent like Justin Herbert, Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater, and they added a few proven veterans in Khalil Mack, JC Jackson and Kyle Van Noy in the spring. Granted, it’s looking like Jackson won’t be available this weekend, but the rest of L.A.’s roster is still good enough to enter the contest as 3.5-point favorites on DraftKings Sportsbook. (Betting lines subject to change).
So, the Silver and Black will need several key contributors to step up to take control of the division early in the year and set a tone for the rest of the season.
Seeing as right tackle is the biggest remaining question mark on Las Vegas’ roster, Jermaine Eluemunor — or whoever gets the start on Sunday — feels like a pretty obvious first X-factor. It’s been two years since he’s held down that spot specifically, but the results were promising.
The former Patriot played six games and about 270 snaps at right tackle in 2020 and only allowed five pressures — one sack and four hurries — in pass protection. That was good enough to earn him a 72.7 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, and he was even better as a run blocker with a 78.8 grade in that regard. The problem is that was a couple of seasons ago and he struggled against the Chargers last year.
Eluemunor allowed four pressures — all hurries — and earned a 42.8 mark in pass protection in Week 4 against the Bolts, while also posting a sub-par 59.5 mark as a run blocker. That ended up being the last contest of the year he’d see any playing time outside of special teams as he was benched by the previous coaching staff.
Hopefully, he’ll be more comfortable moving back out to the edge and in the scheme he found success in as the aforementioned Mack and Bosa await. Those two combined for 91 pressures and 16.5 sacks in 23 games last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Chargers line both of them up on the offense’s right side. In other words, there will be no ‘breaks’ and there will be little margin for error for Eluemunor and the rest of the Raiders’ o-line.
Nate Hobbs was one of Vegas’ biggest surprises in 2021, going from a fifth-round pick to a defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. That honor was due in part to the fact he allowed just 0.74 yards per coverage snap in the slot last season, which was tied for fourth among all corners, and that’ll be put to the test this week as he lines up across from Keenan Allen.
Allen is known as one of the best route runners and interior receivers in the NFL, and he finished with the 10th-most yards from the slot (610) last season, en route to his fourth 1,000-yard season overall in the last five years. In the lone outlier of that timeframe, he still managed to put up 992 yards.
So, the second-year corner will have his hands full as a nickel, but it’s his expanded role in 2022 that makes him an even bigger X-factor.
The new coaching staff seems to be bullish on Hobbs’ growth as they’ve stated multiple times that he’ll have more opportunities on the outside this season and even went as far as trading Trayvon Mullen, an expected starter wide corner. For this week, that means Hobbs will also draw some one-on-one matchups with Mike Williams, the Chargers’ $20 million per year receiver.
Williams enjoyed a breakout campaign a year ago with 76 catches, 1,146 yards — both career-highs — and nine touchdowns — second-most of his career — including torching the Raiders with nine receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown in Week 18.
The good news for the Raiders, though, is Hobbs locked both of those wideouts down last season. The Bolts’ top two targets were thrown at four times against Hobbs in the two contests combined, and while they did come down with three grabs, they went for a total of 25 yards. Hopefully, history repeats itself for the Illinois product even with the bigger spotlight on him.
Los Angeles’ passing game extends beyond the two prolific receivers, though.
Running back Austin Ekeler cemented himself as one of the league’s top pass-catching backs last season by leading the position in receiving yards with 647 during the regular season. That was 99 more than Cordarrelle Patterson, who finished in second place and is a former wide receiver, and 180 more than Najee Harris, the third-place finisher. Ekeler also managed to lead the way with eight receiving touchdowns, two more than No. 2 on the list, Aaron Jones.
That’s where Divine Deablo is going to need to step up and improve from his previous campaign. Last year, he ranked 53rd among linebackers with a 53.7 PFF coverage grade, allowing completions on 14 of 16 targets with just one pass breakup and 174 receiving yards. His 87.5 percent completion rate yielded was the 13th-worst at the position, and he ranked in the bottom five with 12.4 yards per catch surrendered.
Obviously, that needs to change but the good news is the third-round pick was stout against the run in 2021. Despite only getting significant playing time in six regular season contests, he was 20th among backers with a 71.9 run defense grade and logged eight stops to just one missed tackle. His missed tackle rate was just outside the top 10 at 4.2 percent, which will be put to the test on Sunday.
Ekeler set a career-high with 37 missed tackles forced (MTF) when toting the rock last season and that was good enough to finish in the top 20 of all running backs. He also had the fourth-most MTF after catching the ball with 16 to be one of the NFL’s shiftiest and most-elusive backs.
So, while the matchup will be a challenge, it will also be a great opportunity for Deablo to show how much growth he made in the offseason.
Bilal Nichols doesn’t have the star power that Davante Adams and Chandler Jones do, he was a crucial free agent signing for the Silver and Black and one that can make a major impact right away.
While Nichols only ranked tied for 33rd among defensive tackles with 31 total pressures a year ago, that was mainly because he got off to a slow start. In Weeks 1-9, he was tied for 39th with 13 pressures, but he caught fire in the back half of the season with 18 in the final eight games of the year. The latter was tied for 21st at the position with some big names like Fletcher Cox and Ndamukong Suh.
Those are some promising numbers for the soon-to-be 26-year-old as he begins to mature and ascend in the league. The biggest question is has his growth been stunted after missing the majority of offseason workouts and practices and training camp with an injury?
Luckily for Nichols, his first live-action will come against a rookie in Zion Johnson. That being said, the first-round pick is no slouch. He allowed just six pressures — one sack, two QB hits and three hurries — and earned a 99.0 PFF pass-blocking efficiency rating, which ranked tied for fifth and second among ACC guards last season.
The Chargers will be heavily relying on Johnson’s skills in pass protection as Justin Herbert is a much different quarterback when facing pressure. In 2021, Herbert earned the sixth-highest PFF passing grade among qualifying QBs (91.6) when kept clean, but he dropped down to 15th under pressure (53.9).
In other words, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is going going to be looking for the defensive line to turn up the heat, and Nichols is going to have to win some one-on-one matchups since the edges will likely draw most of the offense’s attention.
Malcolm Koonce is basically in the same boat as Nichols. As just stated, putting pressure on the quarterback will be a point of emphasis this week, and the Raiders are going to need pass rushers outside of Jones and Crosby, who will likely be double-teamed, to be at their best. That puts a lot of pressure on the second-year pro but also creates a great opportunity for him.
Last season, Koonce was the developmental project who showed flashes late in the year. He notched four pressures on 25 pass rushes for a 16.0 percent pressure rate, which was less than one percent lower than Crosby’s figure (16.9 percent). And the 2021 third-round pick had a higher overall winning percentage, 27.3 to 26.8.
It was more of the same during the preseason for Koonce, as he led the Raiders with a 77.7 pass-rush grade and had the highest win rate at 18.2 percent (minimum 26 snaps as a rusher). He also finished second on the team in total pressures, seven, despite having the fourth-fewest opportunities among the qualifying defenders.
The Buffalo product has earned the right to be Las Vegas’ third edge defender and appears to have carved out a role on third downs, now it’s just time to prove it when the lights are brightest.