It never hurts a team to have more power and speed screaming off the edges on defense. And that’s what makes the Las Vegas Raiders’ acquisition of Jordan Willis intriguing.
The 6-foot-4 and 270-pound seven-year veteran inked a one-year deal with the Silver & Black this offseason as an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two-plus seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Looking at this statistics alone, it’s easy to surmise Willis was nothing more than a spot player. In his tenure with San Francisco, the 28-year-old compiled 27 total tackles (12 solo), seven stops for loss, 7.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. Yet, the Niners coaching staff spoke highly of Willis during his tenure that saw him earn both defensive snaps and special teams work.
“He’s not just a rotational guy, just there to eat reps,” former 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans (now the Houston Texans head coach) said about Willis. “He steps in and he affects the game, he makes plays for us, game-changing plays.”
The Raiders ponied up just $1.156-plus million to find out if Willis can make the same impact in Silver & Black.
Rotational may be Willis’ starting point with the Raiders. He’s likely to play a similar role in Patrick Graham’s defense that Clelin Ferrell held when last season as the run-down defender with edge discipline. (Interesting enough, not only is Willis seemingly destined for Ferrell’s role, he took the No. 99 while Cle is now with the 49ers and likely to play Willis’ role there).
But what Willis adds that Ferrell could not is speed around the edge.
Willis came into the league as a speed rusher after running a 4.53 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine back in 2017 at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds. He was picked by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round (73rd overall) but didn’t ascend very highly up the depth chart. Stuck behind established and productive talent, Willis’ two-year stint as a Bengal ended with 45 total tackles (13 solo), eight tackles for loss, and two sacks in two starts in 32 games played. He ended up with the Jets for a season plus before getting shipped to San Francisco via trade. Willis was again behind quality edge rushers with the 49ers, but made most of his snaps both on defense and special teams.
In Las Vegas, he joins a defensive end group that features elite Maxx Crosby, veteran Chandler Jones who is trying to rebound from a thud of a 2022 season, and intriguing No. 7 overall pick Tyree Wilson. That trio is going to eat up the snap counts in 2023 as Crosby rarely left the field last season (1,085 snaps; 96 percent of the Raiders total defensive snaps), and Jones deployed often, too (784 snaps; 78 percent). If healthy and a go at training camp, Wilson is going to be given every opportunity to develop and earn snaps, too.
If Wilson isn’t 100 percent, however, Willis can fill in and earn snaps.
He has the size — not necessarily the length and wingspan Crosby, Jones, or Wilson have — and he’s still got the speed. He also added muscle mass and bulk needed to gain much-needed strength. Willis’ get-off is still quick and he can get around the edge quickly showing requisite bend, but he also has the power to push linemen back to either get to the quarterback and pressure them. He isn’t the one-dimensional rusher he was when he arrived.
“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.”
Willis is also a willing special teamer where his size and speed can make a difference on coverage units. His most memorable play as a 49ers was on punt coverage, by the way. It’s an explosive play the Raiders are seeking in all three aspects. Take a look: