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Raiders Week 16: Patience paying dividends

Divine Deablo, Malcolm Koonce are rising to occasion for Las Vegas defense

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Divine Deablo (5) celebrates a stop against the Los Angeles Chargers during the team’s 63-14 win last Thursday.
Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images

As back-to-back picks in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Divine Deablo and Malcolm Koonce are tied at the hip. Koonce’s name was called first as the 79th overall pick and Deablo quickly followed as the 80th selection by the Las Vegas Raiders. Not only that, but two months and 11 days are all that separate their birthdays.

The duo were taken to help supplement the roster and fill talent voids at defensive end and linebacker, respectively, and it took some time to get quality return on investment (ROI). That’s not an easy thing to do and for football teams — especially one like the Raiders, a squad not renowned for its talent evaluation and development — and the early returns weren’t promising on either Koonce or Deablo.

But here we are in Year 3, of their careers and while Las Vegas hasn’t experienced total team success, the seeds planted on defense are bearing much-needed fruit. The patience the team exhibited with both third rounders is paying dividends as both Koonce and Deablo are rising to the occasion. Not only patience, but improved dedication to player development and proper usage.

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and 4.42 speed, Deablo is a prime example of the size-speed combo linebacker that’s needed in today’s NFL — fast enough to keep up in coverage, but big enough t o remain a force in run support. The 25-year-old is second on the team in total tackles with 87 (51 solo) and has three stops for loss, a sack, two pass deflections and a fumble recovery under his belt in 12 games (all starts) this season.

In the 63-21 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, Deablo was all over the field and led the defense with 12 total tackles showcasing an improving read-and-react decision making that’s supported by his immense speed. The collegiate safety turned pro linebacker has rebounded well from a season-ending injury last season (that limited him to eight games) as he’s played 598 snaps on defense in his 12 starts.

Koonce, on the other hand, is providing the juice off the edge the Raiders so desperately seek. While he may not have the prototypical edge rusher in terms of size and length at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he does have the requisite agility and bend to be a pain to block. He had his best game as a Raider in the victory over the Chargers with two strip sacks (both fumbles recovered by Las Vegas, one a scoop and score by defensive tackle John Jenkins) with three quarterback hits and three total tackles.

On the year, Koonce’s numbers aren’t eye-grabbing, per say. He has four total sacks to go along with 32 total tackles and, according to Pro Football Reference, the pass rusher has 16 pressures under his belt through 14 games. But those numbers represent a quantum leap for Koonce who was relegated mostly to special teams in Year 2 and was used sparingly in his rookie year. His 373 snaps this year on defense is a career high and he has 237 special teams snaps too boot.

Practice is quite literally making perfect for Koonce.

“Malcolm, skilled player in terms of speed, quickness, the ability to bend, plays with his hands, and just the consistency of his showing up,” Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said of Koonce during Wednesday’s media availability. “And where did it start? Started in practice. I mean, you can ask everybody on defense.”

When asked about Koonce’s rise to relevance, Raiders interim head coach Antonio Pierce noted it was the team adapting to the player and allowing him to do what he does best. And we’re seeing the results.

Graham was asked a similar question and, as the defensive play caller, his answer provided more insight.

“So, again, how we adapt to it, it’s our job to put them in the right spots and make sure we’re teaching them the right things. But I think just what Malcolm’s done, again, I never want to give us too much credit,” Graham said. “It’s him making the decision to practice the right way, get better, to improve, put in the necessary work, that’s just what it comes down to in professional football. Guys making the decision to improve and then me trying to stay out of the way and not mess them up. And I couldn’t be more proud of that guy.”

Deablo, Koonce, and the Raiders defense gets a gargantuan test of stopping the Kansas City Chiefs offense on Christmas Day this coming Monday. And another standout effort by both is going to help dictate Las Vegas’ success (or lack thereof).

Graham is showcasing adaptability with Tyree Wilson, the seventh overall pick that’s looked upon to be a become a pass rush force like Koonce is displaying now, by moving the 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end inside at defensive tackle to diversify his usage. And the results are promising. The defensive coordinator evoked “practice” when talking about Wilson’s improvement.

“Part of confidence starts with getting reps, I think. Just get repetition. We talk about it all the time, self-confidence over self-esteem. Self-esteem, a lot of time is the talk, self-confidence comes from the preparation you put in, the work you put in. So, he’s constantly getting better at practice. Again, I can’t stress it enough. And I think it’s so important, especially in this game, that how you practice becomes game reality.”