Better, worse or the same? Only way is up for Raiders' defense

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LAS VEGAS -- The biggest offseason move Jon Gruden made on defense this offseason? Replacing popular defensive line coach Brentson Buckner -- who got good production out of two rookies -- with a future Hall of Famer in Rod Marinelli, who should also light a fire under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. After finishing No. 19 in total defense, and just 24th in points allowed, adjustments had to be made on that side of the ball this offseason. And they were.

But did the Las Vegas Raiders' defensive position groups get better, worse or remain the same? There is definitely a theme at play here, but take a look for yourself ...

Defensive line

Additions: Carl Nassib (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Maliek Collins (Dallas Cowboys), Daniel Ross (Cowboys), Kendal Vickers (CFL), Mike Panasiuk (undrafted rookie)

Losses: Benson Mayowa (Seattle Seahawks), Olsen Pierre (unsigned), Dion Jordan (unsigned), Josh Mauro (unsigned)

Returners: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins, P.J. Hall, Arden Key, Jeremiah Valoaga, Ade Aruna

Better, worse or the same? Better

Crosby (10 sacks) and Ferrell (4.5 sacks) are second-year foundation pieces on the edges and Mayowa's seven sacks will be missed. Still, Nassib should be an upgrade from Mauro and former Cowboys Collins and Ross figure to beef up the interior for Marinelli, who coached them in Dallas. Their arrival should also send a warning shot across the bows of the USS Hall and USS Hurst. Hey, competition brings out the best, right? It is also time for Key to establish himself or find himself on the outside looking in.

Inside linebackers

Additions: Nick Kwiatkoski (Chicago Bears)

Losses: Vontaze Burfict (unsigned), Will Compton (unsigned)

Returners: Justin Phillips

Better, worse or the same? Same

Wait, wasn't the addition of Kwiatkoski supposed to be an upgrade after the Burfict experiment flamed out, thanks to the NFL banning him for the season after an illegal hit? Wasn't it supposed to be an upgrade from the ineffective Tahir Whitehead, who was replaced as the MIKE in the Raiders' base 4-3 defense by Compton, a guy who was hosting a podcast? Well, yeah. And Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot communications helmet as the team's defensive playcaller. But he is, ahem, green himself, having not become a full-time starter until midway through last season for the Bears.

Phillips is the only other linebacker who is a pure MIKE, so depth is an issue, too, though the Raiders do spend a lot of time in their nickel defense. Plus, Marquel Lee can play middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme in a pinch, too.

Outside linebackers

Additions: Cory Littleton (Los Angeles Rams), Tanner Muse (third-round draft pick), Javin White (undrafted rookie), Nick Usher (CFL)

Losses: Tahir Whitehead (Carolina Panthers)

Returners: Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow, Ukeme Eligwe, Kyle Wilber

Better, worse or the same? Better

Littleton is the crown jewel of the Raiders' free-agent class, a WILL who can cover sideline-to-sideline. More importantly, he should be able to cover running backs and tight ends, the Achilles' heel for the Raiders for the better part of a decade. He led the Rams in tackles in each of the past two seasons, had five interceptions and should start on the weak side while Lee could be penciled in at SAM.

There is a reason eight of the 10 linebackers on the Raiders' 90-man offseason roster are outside 'backers; they play so much nickel that more outside guys are needed, especially undersized linebackers who can cover and could potentially play like a hybrid safety. All of which will make a camp battle between the likes of Morrow and rookies Muse and White all the more intriguing.


Additions: Prince Amukamara (Bears), Damon Arnette (first-round draft pick), Amik Robertson (fourth-round draft pick), Ken Crawley (Miami Dolphins), Madre Harper (undrafted rookie)

Losses: Daryl Worley (Cowboys), Makinton Dorleant (unsigned), Nick Nelson (Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform)

Returners: Trayvon Mullen, Keisean Nixon, Nevin Lawson, Isaiah Johnson, Dylan Mabin, D.J. Killings, Jordan Brown

Better, worse or the same? Better

The Raiders had just nine interceptions in 2019, 29th best in the 32-team NFL, and only three of those picks came from cornerbacks. Two of them came from Gareon Conley -- who was traded on Oct. 21 -- and Worley, who is now a Cowboy. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only three teams had fewer than three INTs by players listed as cornerbacks last season. Enter a calming veteran presence in Amukamara, who has 10 career interceptions, to pair with Mullen (who has the only returning cornerback interception), while the second of the Raiders' two first-round picks, Arnette, grows into the role of a physical corner.

If Lawson makes the squad, he will have to sit out the opener on a league-mandated suspension after using his helmet as a weapon in the 2019 finale at Denver. The revamped CB room also got a ballhawk slot corner in fourth-round draft pick Robertson, the 5-foot-8, 187-pounder who had 14 interceptions, with three pick-sixes, in three seasons at Louisiana Tech. Las Vegas' CBs should be more active, if not much better overall, in 2020.


Additions: Jeff Heath (Cowboys), Damarious Randall (Cleveland Browns)

Losses: Karl Joseph (Browns), Curtis Riley (unsigned)

Returners: Johnathan Abram, Erik Harris, Lamarcus Joyner, Dallin Leavitt

Better, worse or the same? Better

The bonus here is that the Raiders essentially get another first-round pick in Abram, who played one game as a rookie last season after injuring his shoulder in the opener and spending the rest of the year on IR. Joyner, while listed as a safety, is the team's nickelback, and Harris, who led the team with three interceptions -- including a pair of pick-sixes -- has established himself as a Gruden favorite while proving himself time and time again. Randall and Heath provide depth and physicality, even if Raiders fans remember Heath for causing Derek Carr to fumble the ball through the end zone for a touchback with a sideline hit in 2017 when Carr was trying to reach across the goal line for a game-winning TD.

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