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Raiders free agency 2023: Jordan Willis more than niche defender?

Defensive end has shot to be an underrated signing by Las Vegas

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers
Jordan Willis was an effective rotational defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers this past season. He has a shot to carve out a role on the Las Vegas Raiders defensive line this offseason.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

On the surface, it sure looks like the Las Vegas Raiders offset the departure of Clelin Ferrell to the San Francisco 49ers via free agency by adding ex-Niner Jordan Willis a mere four days later.

Even more so considering Willis will sport the No. 99, Ferrell’s old number.

The similarities between the two edge defenders doesn’t end there, however. Both stand at 6-foot-4 with Willis being heavier at 275 pounds to Ferrell’s 265 weight. And there’s a high likelihood the pair are replacing one another in the desert and the Bay Area, respectively.

In Willis, Las Vegas gets a disciplined edge defender who has the ability to both stymie the run and collapse the pocket on the quarterback. The 27-year-old entered the league as a third-round pick in 2017 by the Cincinnati Bengals and racked up 12 total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, and four quarterback hits in 200 snaps rotating on the 49ers defensive line at end. For his six-year career, Willis has 92 total tackles (55 solo), 15 stops for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 23 quarterback hits under his belt.

Former 49ers defensive coordinator and now Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans spoke highly of Willis’ tenure (where 7.5 of his career sacks arrived).

“He’s not just a rotational guy, just there to eat reps,” Ryans told reporters in a mid-season post game press conference when asked about Willis. “He steps in and he affects the game, he makes plays for us, game-changing plays.”

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at San Francisco 49ers
Jordan Willis, center, sacks Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Chase Daniel during the San Francisco 49ers’ win over the Bolts this past November.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The exact role Willis carves out with the Raiders remains to be seen. The depth chart at the defensive end/edge spot isn’t clear-cut outside Maxx Crosby, and potentially, Chandler Jones. So snaps are likely there for the taking for Willis and others.

But if Willis earns a roster spot and plays a similar role as Ferrell did, don’t be surprised. Maintaining the edge is a must-do and Willis has the experience and skillset to do so. That wouldn’t have been the case before his three seasons as a 49er, however.

Coming into the league as a speed rusher out of Kansas State with his 4.53 speed, Willis was very much a one-speed, one-move type pass rusher as a linebacker. After bouncing from the Bengals to the New York Jets between 2019 and 2020, he began the quest to be more well-rounded. While his 49ers career didn’t start off well — suspended the first six games of 2021 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances and on injured reserve due to a knee scope — Willis found his footing.

He bulked up and still says he feels fast as ever. That allowed him to incorporate much-needed power to his repertoire. Strength is matching with his speed giving him the ability to affect the game more. The Raiders are banking that continues in the desert.

“I think I made the mistake that a lot of young players make,” Willis said. “They think that they’re gonna come into the NFL and just use their speed. But none of the offensive linemen respect speed if you can’t power rush. That’s kind of what I’ve learned: If you can power a guy, then your other moves — your other speed and finesse moves — will open up for you.”

Power is a requisite to be a difference maker not only getting after the quarterback, but stuffing the run. And while Ferrell didn’t live up to his status as a No. 4 overall pick as a quarterback takedown artist, he did hold up quite well stopping the run. And like Ferrell, Willis is no stranger to special teams work garnering 158 snaps on the Niners’ unit. Expect that to be the workload for any rotational defensive end for the Raiders, too.