The Raiders attacked the offseason with a clear plan to upgrade their defense at every level, and after a flurry of additions through free agency and the draft it’s possible that more than half the starters on the Las Vegas defense could be new in 2020.
Considering where the Raiders ranked in 2019 — 24th in points per game allowed, 26th in yards per play allowed — the improvement will have to be massive. Has the team accomplished that in one offseason? A look at the Raiders’ key defensive additions, in order of their importance to a 2020 postseason run:
1. Cory Littleton, LB
Finally, the Raiders have a defender capable of covering a running back or tight end over the middle of the field. That was the team’s biggest hole heading into the offseason, and it’s hard to imagine a better marriage between player skill and team need. Littleton has been one of the league’s best coverage linebackers in recent years and he is always available, having played all 16 games in each of his four years in the NFL.
Any way you look at it, Littleton will be the centerpiece of the Raiders’ defense in 2020: He turns Las Vegas’ biggest weakness into a strength and he’ll be on the field for just about every snap. That’s worth paying top dollar on the free agent market (three years, $36 million).
2. Maliek Collins, DT
The Raiders’ signing of Collins flew under the radar, but the former Dallas Cowboy is being brought in to make an impact. He recorded 48 pressures last year and posted the fourth-best pass-rushing win rate among all defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, so he will start at DT and be turned loose to get after the quarterback on passing downs.
Collins’ interior pass rush should help the development of defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, and as Collins will be just 25 years old in 2020, he can still be part of the Raiders’ young defensive core.
3. Prince Amukamara, CB
The Raiders went into the offseason pretty confident they had one starting cornerback in place for 2020 in Trayvon Mullen. Anything beyond that was a question mark, which is why Las Vegas reportedly pursued free agent corners Byron Jones, Chris Harris and Eli Apple before eventually landing Amukamara with a 1-year deal.
Amukamara isn’t going to shut down his side of the field or make many big plays — he broke up just four passes last year and didn’t intercept any — but he’s dependable in coverage and his health is usually reliable. For a defense that was as bad as the Raiders’ last year, words like “dependable” and “reliable” are just what the doctor ordered.
Amukamara’s signing is even more important when put in the context of the rest of the Raiders’ secondary. The team drafted two promising cornerbacks last month in Damon Arnette (first round) and Amik Robertson (fourth round), but asking rookies to play starters’ snaps right out of the gate would be dangerous. Amukamara can soak up snaps while the coaching staff brings along Arnette and Robertson at their own pace.
4. Carl Nassib, DE
The Raiders love what they have in second-year DE Maxx Crosby, who recorded 10.0 sacks last year, but 2019 first-round pick Clelin Ferrell is less of a sure thing at the other end position. That’s where Nassib will make his biggest impact, as a situational pass-rusher capable of pushing Ferrell while also spelling Crosby
Las Vegas is paying Nassib like a starter (three years, $25 million), so expect him to get a lot of snaps rotating between both DE spots. It’s not out of the question that he beats out Ferrell for a full-time job, either.
5. Amik Robertson, CB
Robertson was taken 120 picks after Las Vegas selected another cornerback, Damon Arnette, in the first round (No. 19 overall), but there’s a good chance Robertson ends up playing more in 2020 and making a bigger impact.
Robertson is only 5-foot-9, but his elite change-of-direction skills make him a top prospect as a slot corner. And the Raiders have a huge hole at that position, as Lamarcus Joyner was routinely torched in 2019.
Slot corner should be one of the Raiders’ most intense training-camp battles this summer as Robertson looks to make an instant impact.
6. Nick Kwiatkoski, LB
Like Littleton, Kwiatkoski is a young linebacker who has earned top grades for his pass-coverage ability. Unlike Littleton, he doesn’t have a track record as a full-time starter, so it’s not as simple as projecting Kwiatkoski into the lineup as a three-down LB.
Still, even as a coverage specialist Kwiatkoski should bring value to the revamped linebacking corps. Last year he started eight games, defended four passes and made one interception.
7. Damarious Randall, S
Randall has been spotty in coverage since making the move from cornerback to safety in 2018, but the Raiders are short on range at the position — and that’s assuming hard-hitting safety Johnathan Abram can stay healthy.
Randall at least gives the team veteran depth at his position, which is why he’s rated above Arnette on this list.
8. Damon Arnette, CB
When you spend a top-20 pick on a player at a position of need, you typically want that guy to start right away. That may not be Arnette’s development path, however.
The Raiders think he’s faster and more athletic than he showed in pre-draft testing, but Arnette will need some time to transition to the NFL game. His physical, hands-on style of coverage will draw a lot of flags until he learns how to pester receivers without interfering, and with Mullen and Amukamara looking like starters on the outside, there’s no obvious way to get Arnette into the base defense from Week 1.
Of all the high-profile newcomers the Raiders will be counting on to transform the defense in 2020, Arnette may have the least impact despite his draft profile.