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Raiders defense: More big nickel on the horizon?

Marcus Epps’ arrival gives Las Vegas yet another enforcer box safety

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions
New Las Vegas Raiders safety Marcus Epps, right, is a solid tackler who excels at hitting whomever has the ball. He’s a plus run defender but can be a liability on backend coverage.
David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Out goes Johnathan Abram and in comes a similar player in Marcus Epps. That’s the consensus when it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders reportedly signing the former Philadelphia Eagles safety.

And on the surface, that’s an accurate statement.

Epps, much like former Raider Abram, is a hard-nosed safety that packs a mean wallop. He arrives to the ballcarrier or pass catchers with bad intentions as Epps seeks to separate the ball from said player’s hands. And, just like Abram, coverage isn’t Epps’ strong suite.

Both Epps and Abram even have similar builds with the former standing 6-feet and 198 pounds and the latter at 6-feet, 205 pounds. Both were even part of the 2019 NFL Draft class with Epps arriving to the league as a sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings (191st overall) and Abram being the Raiders 27th overall pick in the first round.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Epps, a part of a domineering Eagles defense this past season, was a consistent and stout run defender through the course of his 17 regular season starts. The 27-year-old earned the distinction as the sixth graded safety stopping the run while earning the 59th coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. Epps racked up 94 total tackles (70 solo) with four tackles for loss and forced fumble as a starting safety in Philadelphia, although he did miss 10 tackles, according to Pro Football Reference.

Coverage-wise, Epps was targeted 52 times allowing 32 receptions (73.1 percent) for 420 yards and six touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks who targeted Epps in coverage sported a staggering 139.1 passer rating. So yes, in essence, Epps — an enforcer safety best suited in the box that plays close to the line of scrimmage — is Abram all over again. Albeit a much more refined and consistent version.

Epps is penciled in as the stater at strong safety alongside free safety Tre’Von Moehrig — although the depth chart is likely to fluctuate up until Week 1 of the regular season and beyond. That said, Epps does provide the Raiders a strong presence on the backend and a piece that allows the team to potentially deploy more “Big Nickel” looks that sees three safeties on the field at the same time.

Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham deployed this look throughout the course of the 2022 season that saw Abram, Moehrig, Duron Harmon, Roderic Teamer and Isaiah Pola-Mao all out there in three-safety sets. The big nickel, a formation that was oft-used by Bill Belichick for his New England Patriots defense, sees a safety line up in the slot that a nickel cornerback usually occupies. This is the spot Abram would normally play and that Teamer and Pola-Mao rotated into when the former was released.

With Epps in tow, the Raiders could run that variant again in 2023 with Epps playing lower in the slot/near the line of scrimmage while Moehrig and another safety line up deep on the backend in the two-high shell.