The Las Vegas Raiders defense made notable improvements under former coordinator Gus Bradley. We saw strides in the pass rush (15th in quarterback pressure rate) and in coverage (13th in passing yards allowed), though the unit still allowed the 26th-most points.
Overall, that’s not good enough.
General manager Dave Ziegler will likely turn over the defensive line group to replace players set to test free agency. Cornerback Casey Hayward Jr.’s contract will expire next week, which creates a void in the secondary. And lastly, the front office could make significant changes at linebacker.
Over the weekend, interior defensive linemen, edge-rushers, linebackers and defensive backs took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, giving Raiders brass a sample of what’s coming into the league in April.
Damone Clark, linebacker, LSU
Hear this one out for a minute. The Raiders don’t have a strong need at linebacker. However, that could change soon.
This past season, linebacker Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski lost their starting roles. The former ceded his position to rookie third-rounder Divine Deablo, and the latter served as a backup in eight games and missed nine outings. Also of note, Nicholas Morrow has an expiring contract.
If the Raiders designate Littleton and Kwiatkoski as post-June 1 cuts, they would eat about $5.3 million in dead money but save approximately $18.8 million in cap space, per Over the Cap. With their diminished snap count from the 2021 campaign, neither looks like a lock to hold on to a roster spot in 2022.
Coming off a Pro Bowl season, Denzel Perryman has one year left on his deal, so the Raiders may add a linebacker on Day 2 of the draft. Damone Clark could spearhead change at the linebacker position under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Clark tested well at the combine with high-grade vertical and broad jumps via MathBomb, showing explosiveness to go along with his 4.57-second 40-yard dash time.
While Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, who didn’t participate at the combine, and Devin Lloyd have cornered the discussion among linebackers, ESPN’s Jordan Reid reports that team scouts view Clark more favorable than the media:
On Day 2, the Raiders may target Clark, who can become the centerpiece of their defense for the long term. He had a breakout 2021 campaign with 137 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, three pass breakups and an interception.
Jordan Davis, defensive tackle, Georgia
On Saturday, Jordan Davis stole the show at the combine with his 4.78-second 40-yard dash time, which is stunning for a 6-foot-6, 341-pound mammoth man. Beyond his run, he tested well across the board via MathBomb:
An athletic 340-plus pounder presents problems for everyone on the opposing offensive line. Box-score watchers may have some concern with his total number of sacks (seven) and quarterback hurries (seven) through four collegiate terms, but he’s a potential “unlock” defender, which is someone who can cause disruption and make life easier for the edge-rushers (Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue):
If Crosby doesn’t have to face consistent double-teams on the edge because an offensive lineman needs help with Davis, he can take over games, especially in the fourth quarter when fatigue sets in for both teams.
As the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Graham valued 6’4″ 342-pound defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence who fits the description as an “unlock” defender.
If Graham has some influence early in the draft, the Raiders may replenish their defensive line, which may lose Quinton Jefferson, Solomon Thomas and Johnathan Hankins in free agency, with a man-giant who has room to grow as a defender on passing downs but offers immediate support in run defense.
Kaiir Elam, cornerback, Florida
Barring a move up into the top 15, Vegas probably won’t have a shot to draft Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner or Derek Stingley Jr., who’s recovering from Lisfranc surgery, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Andrew Booth Jr. seems like a more realistic target as he bounces back from a minor quad injury.
Who knows? Vegas may attempt to acquire cornerback James Bradberry from the New York Giants, who shed some contracts under a new regime last week.
If not, Kaiir Elam may have caught the team’s attention with his Sunday workout. At 6’1½”, 191 pounds, he blazed the track with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash time and showed smooth mechanics through the defensive back drill circuit.
Elam’s backpedal looks fluid with his active feet and loose hips. On top of that, he caught just about every ball in the drills, including the gauntlet, which is primarily a pass-catching exercise.
Florida has a lackluster track record in recent first-round cornerbacks with Vernon Hargreaves III (No. 11 overall in 2016) and CJ Henderson (No. 9 overall in 2020) contributing very little on the NFL level, but you have to evaluate the prospect on the field not through his school’s past successes or failures.
Elam has the upside to start early as a pro because of his physical tools and ball skills (six interceptions and 20 pass breakups), but he must trust his technique against top talent, using his length and footwork rather than his hands to stay in stride with receivers.
Travis Jones, defensive tackle, Connecticut
Travis Jones didn’t have an issue racking up decent collegiate numbers. He opted out of the 2020 term but logged eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss between 2019 and 2021.
As a collegian, Jones has already proved that he’s able to stop the run and stay on the field for passing downs. The Connecticut product could easily play two-thirds of the snaps in his first year as a pro in Graham’s multiple scheme.
Jones models his game after Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who’s 6’4″, 305 pounds and logged 8.5 sacks and 25 quarterback pressures this past season.
At 6’4″, 325 pounds, Jones showed great balance while staying light on his feet during the position drills and put forth his best through the workouts to finish with a 9.65 Relative Athletic Score.
Though many mock draft analysts have listed Jones as an early second-rounder, he could slide into the first round after an impressive showing at the combine. The three-down lineman has the total package for a team like the Raiders who need to reshape their defensive front.
Devonte Wyatt, defensive tackle, Georgia
The “other” Georgia defensive tackle had a strong performance at the combine as well. Davis garnered the spotlight, but Devonte Wyatt ran an impressive 4.77-second 40-yard dash time at 6’3″, 304 pounds.
Wyatt has a compact frame, looks fluid in the trenches while tracking down ball-carriers and still brings immense strength. Like his fellow interior lineman and former teammate (Davis), his box-score numbers don’t jump off the screen, but he could see a production spike on the pro level with a bigger workload.
Keep in mind, Georgia used their defensive linemen in a rotation, which limited the overall production of prospects such as Travon Walker, Davis and Wyatt in recent seasons.
Between Davis and Wyatt, the latter could post better numbers on the pro level because of his ability to line up in different spots between the guards. Assuming Graham continues to emphasize the importance of using multiple alignments (being multiple as he says), the Raiders may favor Wyatt.
While Davis will go into the draft as the bigger name and prospect, don’t sleep on Wyatt as an option.
Collegiate statistics provided by cfbstats.com.
Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.