When Patrick Graham was hired as the Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive coordinator last offseason, many fans were excited because Graham is a highly regarded defensive mind throughout the league. Part of the reason he got that label is during his first season as the New York Giants’ coordinator (2020), the team’s defense went from ranking 30th in points allowed the year before to ninth.
Unfortunately, Graham wasn’t able to find the same first-year magic in Las Vegas as the Raiders were 26th in the league defensively in 2022. But that wasn’t all on the coordinator as the team did lack talent on that side of the ball.
So, with the 2023 NFL Draft steadily approaching, how did the 2020 Giants piece together their defense, and how does that compare to what the Raiders currently have on the roster?
2020 Giants Starters: Leonard Williams (DE/DT), Dexter Lawrence (DT), Dalvin Tomlinson (NT), Kyler Fackrell (EDGE). Off the bench: B.J. Hill (DT), Jabaal Sheard (EDGE)
2023 Raiders Starters: Bilal Nichols (DT), Jerry Tillery (DT), Maxx Crosby (EDGE), Chandler Jones (EDGE). Off the bench: Neil Farrell Jr. (DT), Jordan Willis (EDGE)
The construction of these two defensive lines is almost opposite of each other. The Giants were built inside out where their defensive tackles were stronger than their edges, and the reverse is true for the Raiders with Crosby and Jones serving as the headliners. The way each team acquired its players is vastly different too.
Lawerence was heading into his second season after being a first-round pick the year before and putting together a strong rookie campaign. Tomlinson was a second-rounder in 2017 and was playing on the last year of his rookie deal, while Hill was also on a contract year just as a former third-round pick and entering year three as a pro.
Outside of Williams, who was acquired via a mid-season trade in 2019, New York built the crux of its 2020 defensive line through the draft, another significant difference between the two teams. Crosby is the only starter for Las Vegas who wasn’t acquired via free agency or a waiver claim.
This is probably part of the reason why the Silver and Black didn’t go after some of the big-name defensive linemen last month, so look for them to invest at least one or maybe even two Day 1 or 2 picks within the position group during the draft. Graham clearly likes to draft and develop his defensive linemen, which also could be a good sign that Farrell Jr. takes a big leap forward next season.
2020 Giants starters: Blake Martinez, Tae Crowder. Off the bench: Devante Downs
2023 Raiders starters: Robert Spillane, Divine Deablo. Off the bench: Luke Masterson
The first takeaway from the Giants' crop of linebackers is one man dominated the majority of the reps. Martinez logged 1,063 snaps that year while Crowder had the second-most with 403, over 600 fewer snaps. That was mainly because the G-men had safety hybrid Jabrill Peppers, who actually took more reps in the box than Crowder did, 383 to 292.
Deablo, a former college safety who has since switched to linebacker, is at a similar stage in his career and could fill a similar role as Peppers did. Granted, the latter was acquired via a trade before the 2019 season, but he was entering his fourth year in the league. While Deablo is a year behind that, he’s a similar type of player as Peppers and is about to enter his second season in Graham’s system like Peppers was.
Martinez is the one backer the Raiders are missing and is the biggest difference between the two units. He was a prized free-agent signing that offseason, inking a three-year, $30.75 million contract, and he rewarded New York by posting a career-high 75.9 PFF grade. Robert Spillane’s two-year, $7 million deal and career-high 56.1 grade (minimum 300 snaps) aren’t quite on the same level.
All of the big-ticket free-agent linebackers this offseason are under contract at this point, so maybe the Raiders subsidize the position group with a high draft pick in this year’s class. However, that would be a first for Josh McDaniels...
2020 Giants starters: Jabrill Peppers, Logan Ryan. Off the bench: Julian Love
2023 Raiders starters: Tre’von Moehrig, Marcus Epps. Off the bench: Roderic Teamer
Graham and the 2020 Giants got really creative with how they acquired their safeties. Ryan had spent the first seven years of his career as a cornerback and had only taken about 60 snaps as a free safety before signing with New York in the offseason and switching positions.
Love was drafted as a corner in the fourth round of the 2019 draft and eventually became a bit of a hybrid defensive back, splitting his time between lining up as a free safety, over the slot and in the boundary. As previously mentioned, Peppers was also a Swiss army knife, just on the other end of the spectrum as a safety/linebacker combo.
Given the uniqueness of the position group, this is going to be difficult for the Raiders to replicate with their current roster.
Moehrig could take on the deep safety responsibilities, but he doesn’t have the chops of a multi-year veteran like Ryan does/did. Many people expect Epps to fill the box safety role that Peppers played, but that’s not really what the former Eagle’s background is with 1,353 career snaps as a free safety compared to just 443 in the box.
Then there’s the third safety role where the Raiders just run out of talent. Teamer isn’t the same level of player as Love is and barring a surprise emergence from Jaquan Johnson—a career-long special teamer—or Isaiah Pola-Mao—an undrafted free agent last season—they’re going to need to draft someone.
Even if Deablo steps up and takes on the role Peppers played in the box, Las Vegas will still be missing a versatile defensive back who can make an impact on two areas of the defense, which Graham had when his defense was functioning at its peak.
2020 Giants Starters: James Bradberry, Isaac Yiadom, Darnay Holmes. Off the bench: Ryan Lewis
2023 Raiders Staters: Nate Hobbs, Duke Shelley, Brandon Facyson. Off the bench Amik Robertson.
Bradberry was another big-ticket free agent signing for New York in 2020, inking a three-year $43.5 million contract. That ended up being his breakout campaign as he posted the highest PFF grade (79.8) of his seven-year career that season.
With the open market pretty much closed, Graham’s best hope at replicating Bradberry’s 2020 performance is to spend a premium pick at the position. Maybe Hobbs ends up taking the next step like the coaching staff was hoping he would before he got injured last season, but that doesn’t seem likely with how the campaign ended. Drafting someone is the safer bet that at least gives the team an insurance policy.
The rest of the Giants' 2020 corners should give the 2023 Raiders hope, though. Yiadom was a 2018 third-round pick of the Denver Broncos who made his way to the Big Apple by getting traded for a seventh-rounder ahead of his fourth season. Holmes was a rookie fourth-round selection and handled the slot duties, and the Raiders already have plenty of corners who can fill that role with Hobbs, Robertson and Tyler Hall, among others.
So, Las Vegas’ corners aren’t that far off from what Graham’s best defense had, they’re just missing that alpha dog in the pack. I know a guy who has spent the last couple of months pounding the table for them to draft one this year...