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Raiders 2023 preview: Keep an eye on promising safety Isaiah Pola-Mao

Safety offers size that no other defensive back on roster can provide

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders
At 6-foot-4, second-year safety Isaiah Pola-Mao provides the size in the Las Vegas Raiders secondary no other defensive back can offer.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

In terms of sheer size, Isaiah Pola-Mao provides a unique frame to the Las Vegas Raiders secondary. The undrafted free agent safety stands at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, and has the physical attributes to play in the box and close to the line of scrimmage while also being able to defend on the backend.

That’s the type of versatility the Silver & Black defense so desperately need and it’s his height and length that made the USC product an undrafted free agent-target for the Raiders. It’s imperative Pola-Mao continue his development heading into Year 2 in Las Vegas.

There’s ample opportunity for him to become even more of a contributor — both on defense and special teams.

By The Numbers

  • Isaiah Pola-Mao
  • 23 years old, 6-foot-4, 211 pounds
  • 2022 Stats: 20 total tackles (two for loss), 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 80 snaps on defense (11 percent of team’s total defensive snaps), 179 special teams snaps (61 percent of units snaps)

Playing in 11 games in 2022 — after initially making the roster, getting waived, and put on the practice squad in October before a 53-man roster promotion in early November — Pola-Mao played primarily on special teams (179 snaps) but did earn defensive snaps (80). His biggest contribution came in a 27-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 12 where Pola-Mao resembled his USC days with five total tackles (one for loss), one sack, and two quarterback hits on 13 defensive snaps.

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders safety Isaiah Pola-Moa looks to tackle Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Pola-Mao’s biggest contributions came in this Dec. 4 matchup as he had five tackles, one sack, and two quarterback hits in the Raiders’ 27-20 win.
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

While his snap counts on defense fluctuated from then on in, Pola-Mao was a regular on special teams where his size and speed (4.51 40-yard dash at the USC Pro Day) were both handy.

Special team’s ace is likely Pola-Mao’s best route to a 53-man roster spot in 2023, but as noted above, he offers potential match up opportunities at his size that none of the other six safeties on the roster now can offer. In terms of height, only Tre’Von Moehrig (6-foot-2) comes close. Presumed starting safety Marcus Epps is a shade shorter than Moehrig at 6- while talented rookie Chris Smith II checks in at 5-11.

Pola-Mao gives Las Vegas flexibility to be a matchup defender against tight ends due to his height, weight, and speed. And with perhaps even added bulk/weight, he can become an even more effective defender closer to the line of scrimmage. Of course, the drawback to added muscle/weight is the potential loss of speed and athleticism. So Pola-Mao and the Raiders need to find strike the balance.

But playing in the box and close to the line of scrimmage as a hunter-killer-type was something he showed adeptness at while in a Trojans uniform. USC took advantage of Pola-Moa’s length and speed and activated him on blitzes both up the middle and edge. This was to get after the quarterback and disrupt the reverses or run plays in behind the line of scrimmage.

We saw some of that in his rookie year with the Raiders as he was asked to blitz five times (according to Pro Football Reference) and produced one sacks, two pressures, and two quarterback hits in his limited opportunities.

Getting more opportunity will be a double-edged sword for Pola-Mao — and any younger player on the Raiders roster. In order to improve, Pola-Mao will need live game snaps and thus there will be growing pains. He’ll need to show he can learn from and mitigate those mistakes both in-game and during practices to prove he belongs on the 53-man roster. He did well to show that his rookie year with veterans ahead of him (Moehrig, Johnathan Abram, and Duron Harmon).

Pola-Mao will have to show it all over again this offseason to ensure he’s wearing Silver & Black in 2023. Epps and Moehrig are the early favorites to man the two safety spots — although both were used more as free safeties than in the strong position. Snaps are likely to be there for an unsettled backend of the Raiders secondary and if the team deploys more big nickel looks — one that sees three safeties on the field at the same time — the need for a good rotation at the position is an exponential one.