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Training camp: Veterans with the most to prove at each defensive position group

Lots of room for growth on defense in 2023

Las Vegas Raiders v Tennessee Titans
Divine Deablo, Chandler Jones, Bilal Nichols
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

It’s finally here! Now that the veterans have reported to training camp for the Las Vegas Raiders, the entire team (well, minus one...) is full steam ahead for the 2023 season. Previously, we looked at the offensive veterans who have something to prove during camp, so today we’ll switch sides of the ball and focus on the defenders.

EDGE: Chandler Jones

It’s been well-documented that Chandler Jones had a down season last year and one of the worst statistical performances of his career. That’s not exactly ideal for someone who turned 33 years old in the offseason and has an out in his contract that would save the Raiders up to $17 million if he’s let go next spring. Plus, they’ve already drafted his eventual replacement.

Granted, Tyree Wilson starting training camp on the NFI list likely means Jones’ starting job isn’t in any immediate danger. However, the veteran pass-rusher still could use a good showing during camp to erase any doubt in the coaching staff’s mind and help him get off to a good start during the regular season.

Last year, it took him six weeks to record his first sack with the Silver and Black, which is something he undoubtedly wants to avoid repeating. Otherwise, the 12-year veteran might get a quick hook with the rookie lurking in the shadows.

DL: Bilal Nichols

Similar to Jones, Bilal Nichols’ inaugural campaign in Las Vegas didn’t exactly get off to a hot start. He was brought in to provide some pressure up the middle after racking up eight sacks in 2020 and 2021 combined, only to log 1.5 last season. And while he’s never been known as much of a run defender, he recorded a career-low 48.9 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus in 2022.

That raises the stakes in year two for last year’s free-agent signing. While he is one of the favorites heading into the summer, the Raiders’ competitions for their two starting defensive tackle spots are wide open.

They have a handful of young players like Matthew Butler, Neil Farrell Jr. and Byron Young who are just waiting for an opportunity, so Nichols’ standing with the club could be in jeopardy if he doesn’t have a strong showing over the next month-plus.

LB: Divine Deablo

Arizona Cardinals v Las Vegas Raiders
Divine Deablo
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The third season of a player’s career is often seen as a “make-or-break” year as players no longer get the “he’s still young and learning” excuse with two seasons as a professional under their belts. It’s time to produce or accept the fact that maybe this just isn’t going to work out, and that’s the exact situation Divine Deablo is facing in 2023.

He’s had moments of brilliance like logging 33 defensive stops in 16 career games (including playoffs), per PFF, but between injuries and struggling in coverage, he still has a lot to prove this year.

Also, the coaching staff is putting a lot more trust in Deablo by giving him the green dot in the spring. So, it will be important that he takes command of the defense this summer to affirm the staff’s decision and prove to his teammates that he’s capable of taking on the leadership role.

CB: Amik Robertson

In a similar vein as Deablo, this will be a crucial training camp for Amik Robertson. He took on a bigger role last year, making spot starts and participating in about triple the amount of snaps as he did in his first two seasons combined. That led to him leading the team with six pass breakups and recording a solid 64.1 defensive grade from PFF.

However, this year presents a new challenge for the fourth-year pro. He isn’t a project starter—especially now that Marcus Peters is in the fold—and the Raiders drafted someone with a similar skill set in Jakorian Bennett. Plus, Robertson is entering a contract year. Las Vegas would take on less than $125,000 in dead cap space by cutting him at the end of camp, which, combining all of this, makes for a dangerous combo.

All of that makes it imperative for the 2020 fourth-round pick to have a strong showing this summer.

S: Tre’von Moehrig

Similar to Deablo, Tre’von Moehrig enters that pivotal third season. As a rookie, he looked like a future building block and cornerstone of the defense, but that all changed in year two as he struggled with new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. So, from that standpoint alone, the safety will want to prove early on that he can be effective in Graham’s system.

Adding to that, rookie fifth-round pick Christopher Smith II should be heading to Sin City with a big chip on his shoulder. Smith II showed great instincts at Georgia that have led many people to believe he should have been drafted higher, which will likely light a fire under the former Bulldog.

Between showing growth from last year and holding off a rookie for his starting spot, Moehrig has a lot to prove in training camp.