Earlier this week, we looked at the projected starting offense for the Oakland Raiders. When looking at their defense, it’s a peculiar case. All four defensive line starters became free agents, while they lost both starters at cornerback. The only free agent starters to be retained were 37-year-old safety Charles Woodson, and unheralded defensive tackle Pat Sims.
With additional cap space, they neglected to shoot for any high priced young defensive starters, instead shooting for more veteran defenders on 2-year deals. Before Reggie McKenzie can look at the draft to restock the team’s youthful talent, here is how the starting defense would probably look if there was a game tomorrow.
Left Defensive End: Justin Tuck. Tuck’s skillset has diminished in recent years, but he did finish out 2013 strong by accumulating 9.5 sacks in the final six games. Tuck is still an good pass rusher with remarkable skills against the run. Tuck also has the ability to kick inside to defensive tackle on passing downs, where he has made a living destroying slower guards. This brings versatility to the defense that was very bland at times.
Nose tackle: Pat Sims. Sims started all 16 games last season at nose tackle, and is really impressed as a run defender. He only played about 60% of the snaps, being taken off the field on passing downs rotating with rookie Stacy McGee. While McGee is a promising talent, Sims is still the savvy veteran. However, Sims will have to play out of his mind to maintain his job on base downs.
Under Tackle: Antonio Smith. With Vance Walker gone, the 3-tech spot was one that was clearly up for grabs. While Stacy McGee could have made a push for it, the Raiders wanted a more assured option and signed Antonio Smith. Smith is still a productive pocket pusher and will help teach McGee as well.
Right Defensive End: Lamarr Woodley. One of the better signings of the Raiders, Woodley is only 29 years old and still has a lot of talent despite being injured in recent years in Pittsburgh. For six million dollars a season, Woodley can easily improve in the sack department for Oakland.
Strongside Linebacker: Sio Moore. Starting 13 games as a rookie, Moore impressed coaches with his pass rushing talents, and could be developed into a Von-Miller type role by head coach Dennis Allen, who originally coached Miller in Denver. Here he can move down to rush the passer on passing downs with Justin Tuck kicking into defensive tackle. While he did struggle in some aspects, he’s expected to take a big step in his sophomore season. Easily can keep his job unless Oakland grabs someone like Khalil Mack in the draft.
Middle Linebacker: Nick Roach. One of the more unheralded free agent signings of last year, Roach went on to play every defensive snap and lead the defense. While is not seen as the most athletically talented of linebackers, his instincts and football IQ helped him cover up many of the defensive mistakes in 2013. He plays with a high motor and easily can cover sideline to sideline.
Weakside Linebacker: Kevin Burnett. While he may be the elder statesman of the linebackers, Burnett is easily the best. He is a phenomenal coverage linebacker and can make plays anywhere. The team will eventually upgrade on him, but for the play he gives the Raiders at his age, it’s not a priority.
CB: DJ Hayden. While Hayden was burned frequently as a rookie before landing on injured reserve, his potential talent gives him first shot at a starting job. If he can kick the injury bug and properly develop over the offseason, he could turn into a solid starting corner. Given the other outside cornerbacks on the roster, there’s no reason to see why Hayden wouldn’t start week 1. Even if he can’t carve out a starting role, he should see plenty of snaps.
CB: Tarell Brown. While he didn’t get the credit of his teammates the past few seasons across the bay in San Francisco, Brown is a solid corner who can cover well and can stuff the run. While he did get burned more often in 2013, he is still a reliable starter for a cornerback needy team like Oakland who needs a smart veteran on the outside opposite Hayden. His former 49er teammate Carlos Rogers was also signed this offseason and should see plenty of snaps in sub-packages as a slot corner who can defend the run.
FS: Charles Woodson. While he may be 37 years old, Woodson still has it. He doesn’t have the speed or change of direction he had in his prime, but he still is a strong leader, can tackle well, and force fumbles. However, with Usama Young and possible other challengers nipping at his heels, Woodson is going to have to play near Pro Bowl levels to maintain his job. However, the Raiders could play multiple safeties and move Woodson around to take advantage of his skills.
SS: Tyvon Branch. As one of the longest tenured defensive players, Branch is one of the only remnants of the recent dark years of Raiders football, and his talent is the reason he has been retained. As one of the only men known to shut down Rob Gronkowski, Branch is one of the best underrated safeties, capable of playing everywhere on the field and covering the new breed of tight end. Branch is one of the few true leaders of the team and should continue to help the Raiders defense play at a high level.
While many say the Raiders defense is their big weakness, they currently have a solid roster that should play well for the next few seasons while Reggie McKenzie continues to build around younger players through the draft and selective free agency. The general consensus for this offseason is that the Raiders will spend the fifth overall pick on a defensive player, such as Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack.