With so many needs on his side of the ball, it’s a great thing Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham was named the head coach of the National Team at the upcoming Senior Bowl.
It’s a solid opportunity for Graham to see prospects up close and personal and see how they absorb his coaching during the annual all-star tilt between collegiate seniors. In essence, it’s a supreme scouting opportunity for Graham and the Raiders. And with such a long laundry list of needs on defense, any advantage Las Vegas can get is a tremendous boon.
The NFL Draft, free agency a month before that, and the continued development of current Raiders (old and young) is where Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler and his personnel staff can augment Graham’s defensive roster. And being able to see defensive prospects during Senior Bowl prep is going to be invaluable. It’s a day-to-day experience that gives Graham and the Raiders requisite insight on not only defenders, but offensive players and special teamers.
Let’s look at the Raiders pressing defensive needs. As we get closer to free agency and the draft, I’ll explore players and prospects that fits the needs listed below.
- Interior Pass Rusher: Bilal Nichols was a free agent add last offseason to add much-needed surge from defensive tackle. While he did provide that, it wasn’t consistent. The Raiders do have 2022 draft picks Matthew Butler and Neil Farrell in tow at tackle too, but spent time inactive during their rookie seasons. Las Vegas needs to get much more pass rush punch from the interior. Just look at the most recent example of what Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams did for the New York Giants against the Minnesota Vikings during Super Wild Card Weekend. The straight-up pressure right at Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins altered plays severely.
- Edge Rusher: The Raiders have a special talent in Maxx Crosby. Veteran Chandler Jones was signed to a rich contract last offseason to provide an expected consistent one-two punch. Yet, it was anything but consistent. Las Vegas needs a fresher set of legs off the edge to help both Crosby and Jones — since the latter is expected to return unless he retires. In an AFC West dominated by accomplished quarterbacks (sans the Raiders — for now), deploying a strong one-two punch off the edge to hunt opposing signal callers.
- Middle Linebacker: Denzel Perryman is an unrestricted free agent and will hit the market unless the Raiders bring him back before mid-March. When he was out due to injury this season, Las Vegas was missing the stout heat-seeking missile run stuffer and strong tackler. Youngster Luke Masterson, who started seven games this season as an undrafted free agent, will return and could vie for the spot. He’s got the dedication to his craft, but needs to refine his game to be an impact defender like Perryman.
- Off-ball Linebacker: There are only two of these type of linebackers on the Raiders roster signed for 2023 and that’s Divine Deablo and undrafted free agent Darien Butler. Deablo was an eight-game starter and led the team in tackles (finished with 74 total tackles) before he was lost for the season. Butler came in with a reputation as a spark plug linebacker who is fast and fierce, but the transition to the pro game provided growing pains.
- Cornerback: Namely, CB1. Las Vegas doesn’t have a top corner to shadow the oppositions top wide receiver. Nate Hobbs bounced to the outside struggled and seems better suited as a slot/nickel corner where he exceled as a rookie in 2021. Rock Ya-Sin is an unrestricted free agent and does show ability to be No. 1 corner, however, he’s profiles more as a solid No. 2 boundary cornerback. Injuries led to the Raiders starting undrafted free agents and while some showed glimpses — namely Tyler Hall — they’re more suited for auxiliary roles.
- All-around Safety: You’re never going to mistake Tre’Von Moehrig or Duron Harmon for hammer-type safeties that can lay the smackdown with tackling ability. Yet, Las Vegas is in dire need of a safety that can bot hit and cover. Moehrig is slated to return as he’s on his rookie deal while Harmon will be an unrestricted free agent. Isaiah Pola-Mao is an intriguing safety due size (6-foot-4) and speed. And he also played as a sub package defender lined up at linebacker. But his tackling needs to be polished.