Is help for the defense on the way? That’s what most Las Vegas Raiders fans want to know right now.
With respect to safety Marcus Epps, linebacker Robert Spillane, cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, general manager Dave Ziegler needs to do a lot more to improve the team’s 26th-ranked scoring defense—a unit that needs a new starter on every level.
As the primary free safety with the Philadelphia Eagles last year, Epps will likely compete for the starting job alongside Tre’von Moehrig, but he’s not a shoo-in for the spot. For most of his career, Epps made his contributions on special teams and just became a full-time starter in 2022.
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Remember, at NFL training camps, iron sharpens iron. The Raiders need more starting-caliber players and depth to create a competitive atmosphere for the summer.
With that said, Ziegler can still find defensive playmakers at a good market value after the first wave of NFL free agency. We’ll rank eight realistic fits who didn’t play for the Raiders last season.
8. Andrew Van Ginkel, edge rusher
According to The Score’s Jordan Schultz, Andrew Van Ginkel had a visit with the Raiders. For anyone who doesn’t remember him, he played a key role in the Miami Dolphins’ 26-25 win over the Silver and Black in Week 16 of the 2020 season, registering eight tackles, two for loss and two sacks.
Oh, you still don’t remember Van Ginkel? Watch him walk left tackle Kolton Miller back into Derek Carr’s lap for a sack and loop around the left side of the Raiders offensive line to take down Carr a second time:
As a backup in five out of six games, Van Ginkel played under Patrick Graham when he served as the defensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2019.
7. Eric Rowe, safety
Going back to Patrick Graham’s first stop as a defensive coordinator in Miami, he did a good job of tapping into Eric Rowe’s versatility.
Here’s Rowe’s snap count in 2019, per Pro Football Focus:
- 445 snaps in the box
- 254 snaps out wide
- 226 snaps in the slot
In Miami, Rowe had his first taste of action in a full-time starting role under Graham, recording 81 tackles, one for loss, eight pass breakups and a pick-six while allowing a 57.7 percent completion rate and an 81 passer rating in coverage.
Last season, Rowe made more plays as a downhill defender, racking up 56 tackles, four for loss, and two sacks. Perhaps Graham reunites with him as he rebuilds the defense in his vision.
6. Dawuane Smoot, edge rusher
The Raiders hosted Andrew Van Ginkel, which indicates they’re looking for a reliable third pass-rusher. This past season, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham barely deployed 2021 third-rounder Malcolm Koonce, who played just 68 snaps and saw most of his action on special teams.
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Last year, Ziegler tried to add pass-rushing help with the addition of Kyler Fackrell and Jordan Jenkins, but they both suffered season-ending injuries before Week 1 of the campaign. He’ll likely make another attempt to add reinforcements on the edge to spell Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones.
Smoot has only started in 17 out of 87 contests through six seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he’s established a bit of consistency, recording at least five sacks and five tackles for loss in four consecutive campaigns. Essentially, that’s what you want out of a rotational defensive end.
Smoot just turned 28 years old in March. He should have plenty left in the tank to close out games with Crosby and Jones.
5. Anthony Brown, cornerback
General manager Dave Ziegler will find it difficult to add youth and production in one available cornerback on the market. With Rock Ya-Sin, 26 years old, taking visits with other teams, the Raiders may add a grizzled veteran cover man before double-dipping at the position during the 2023 draft.
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Anthony Brown doesn’t have any previous ties to Graham, though he’s a versatile cornerback who’s a potential fit in the scheme. The seven-year veteran has played a significant number of snaps on the boundary (3,154) and in the slot (1,274), per Pro Football Focus.
In 2021 and 2022, Brown didn’t allow a completion rate higher than 53.3 percent or a passer rating higher than 89.7 (out of a possible 158.3) in coverage.
4. Poona Ford, defensive tackle
Somewhat surprisingly, Poona Ford remains on the open market. Though undersized (5-11, 310 lbs), he’s a durable defensive tackle who’s playing at his best going into his age-28 term.
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Ford hasn’t missed a game since the 2019 campaign. Over the previous three seasons, he’s registered 128 tackles, 20 for loss, and seven sacks. The squatty interior defender has shown the ability to make plays on all three downs while on the field for at least 56 percent of the snaps in each of the last three years.
Ford’s presence can offset Jerry Tillery’s weaknesses in run support if they’re on the field together.
3. Quinton Jefferson, defensive tackle
The Raiders brought back cornerback Brandon Facyson from the previous regime, why not Quinton Jefferson?
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Turning 30 years old on March 31, Jefferson can still provide a push on the interior in pass-rushing situations. In 2021 with the Raiders, he logged 47 tackles, five for loss, 4.5 sacks, 25 pressures and two forced fumbles. Jefferson followed that up with 29 tackles, six for loss, 5.5 sacks and 18 pressures as a defender on the Seattle Seahawks’ front line in 2022.
Yes, Jefferson saw a slight production drop-off in Seattle compared to Las Vegas, but the 6-4, 291-pound defensive lineman also played fewer snaps with the Seahawks (565) than he did with the Raiders (685).
Jefferson is a little more well-rounded than Jerry Tillery because of his ability to play quality snaps against the run.
2. Bobby Wagner, linebacker
On Friday, right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor tried to recruit Bobby Wagner to Las Vegas.
For what it’s worth, Wagner has a picture of dice as his Twitter default photo, which would be fitting for a move to Vegas.
Wagner can still perform at a high level as the centerpiece of a defensive unit. In 2022, he registered 140 tackles, 10 for loss, six sacks, five pass breakups and two interceptions while allowing an 87.1 passer rating in coverage. Wagner made the second-team All-Pro list.
While the Raiders need a young reliable defender in the middle of their defense, Wagner can instantly improve the entire unit with his experience and production in a three-down role. At 32 years old, he didn’t come off the field with the Los Angeles Rams, playing 99 percent of the snaps last season.
1. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, defensive back
General manager Dave Ziegler isn’t likely to splurge on a top free agent, but C.J. Gardner-Johnson seemed disappointed by his market. In a since-deleted tweet, he posted, “The disrespect is real!”
If Gardner-Johnson feels the need to drop his asking price, Ziegler can potentially sign him at a good salary. The Raiders have already plucked a defensive back from the Philadelphia Eagles secondary in Marcus Epps.
Gardner-Johnson could help transform the Raiders defense with his ball production. This past season, he tied with three other defenders for a league-leading six interceptions. Even as a primary slot defender with the New Orleans Saints through the 2021 season, he snagged three interceptions.
Gardner-Johnson hasn’t allowed a passer rating higher than 78.4 in three consecutive terms. He’s arguably the best defensive player available on the open market with high-level production at slot cornerback and safety.
Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.