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Raiders Defensive Line Revamped During Free Agency

Noah Strang
Raiders news Quinton Jefferson
Oct 4, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (90) celebrates with cornerback Josh Norman (29) and defensive end Trent Murphy (93) after a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. The Bills defeated the Raiders 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Las Vegas Raiders News: Las Vegas wasted no time in addressing one of last season’s largest issues: the the Raiders defensive line. With a mix of new acquisitions and returning players, they hope the new group will be a large part of a new-look defense.

Despite spending significant draft capital and free agency money on pass rushers in the last few seasons, the Las Vegas Raiders only managed 21 sacks last year. Making sure the Raiders defensive line was revamped was once again near the top of the list of priorities. Throughout the first week of the offseason that is exactly what they have done. The Raiders news after the first week of the new NFL year was dominated by defensive signings.

Yannick Ngakoue Las Vegas Raiders news
New Raiders DE Yannick Ngakoue (91) rushes during the second half as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) blocks at M&T Bank Stadium. Photo: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is not known to blitz aggressively — he only blitzed on 16.3% of plays last season with the Chargers, good for last in the league — and instead relies on pressure from the defensive line to rush the quarterback. By upgrading the talent along their defensive line, the Raiders hope to put coach Bradley in a better position to succeed.

The new Raiders defensive signings also serve as a warning sign that those who underperformed last season shouldn’t take their jobs for granted. Intensity is always a good thing and by creating some more competition among the position group, the front office may be able to motivate underachievers to perform their best.

Raiders Defensive Line Additions for 2021

The largest pickup the Raiders made was going out and getting defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Still just 25-years-old, Ngakoue has never recorded less than eight sacks in a season and has also managed to force 18 fumbles over his five-year career. He was signed on a 2-year / $26 million dollar deal and will carry a cap hit of $13 million, lower than another free-agent defensive end in Carl Lawson who signed with the New York Jets.

Ngakoue represents a commitment from the Raiders to spend the money necessary to grab proven contributors. While he’s the biggest-name acquired, the team also went after more depth pieces that will help make the battles at training camp more intense.

Solomon Thomas was the third overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft but despite his high draft pedigree he hasn’t been able to experience much NFL success. To compound his issues, he suffered a torn ACL near the start of the 2020 NFL season. Still, the Raiders decided to take a chance on Thomas and signed him to a 1-year / $3.25 million dollar deal. He will carry a cap hit of slightly under $3 million. During his previous stop in San Francisco, Thomas was moved around the defensive line and played both inside and outside, though he never clicked at either spot. For Las Vegas, they’re hoping that with a change of scenery Thomas might be able to show why he was drafted so high in the first place.

Raiders news Solomon Thomas
New Raiders defensive end Solomon Thomas (94) walks to the locker room following a 26-21 San Francisco victory against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in 2019. Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Raiders lost to the Buffalo Bills 30-23 in Week 4 of the 2020 NFL Season, it was Quinton Jefferson that took down Derek Carr for one of the Bills’n two sacks. For this upcoming season, the Raiders will hope that he can provide that same production on their side of the battle. Jefferson was signed for 1-year at $3.25 million and can play both inside and outside on the D-line, though with the defensive end position getting crowded expect most of his snaps to be at defensive tackle.

Potential Position Battles

Gus Bradley now has a plethora of options for how he wants to construct his defensive line. Heading into next year’s training camp, there are going to be a few potential position battles that are going to be closely contested. With Bradley expected to use a 4-3 scheme, we could see a rotation to get all the talented players a healthy snap count.

As mentioned above, this competition should help get the most of players, and if it doesn’t then those that are lagging behind can expect to lose their job. In addition, the added depth on the defensive line should help with any potential injuries that are sure to occur over a full season.

Defensive End: Yannick Ngakoue, Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell

There are only two full-time spots for the three players listed above and all will expect plenty of time on the field. Don’t be surprised if Ferrell sees the field on running downs and Bradley unleashes a Crosby / Ngakoue combination when he needs a sack.

Beyond the three listed above, Vic Beasley Jr., Arden Key, and Carl Nassib will all see the field, though it seems likely they will remain depth options unless there are injuries or other unforeseen circumstances.

Defensive Tackle: Jonathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson, David Irving

At defensive tackle, it’s less clear which players are going to be getting the majority of snaps. Jonathan Hankins was re-signed after playing a significant role last season and he will look to build upon his success. Newcomers Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas will be eager to prove themselves and will push to see the field.

Nov 22, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders defensive end David Irving (95) against the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

David Irving is a player who may be forgotten by some but he does have a pathway to contributing for the Raiders and he could slide in at defensive tackle. Other players such as Mo Hurst will also be options available to Bradley. Overall, defensive tackle is a crowded position where there are no real standouts, meaning that the competition to see the field will be fierce.

Looking to Next Season

Being able to pressure the quarterback with a four-man pass rush is going to be key for improving the Raiders’ defense next season. They’ve been active and aggressive throughout the first portion of free agency and have brought in a mix of proven contributors and wild cards that will help beef up the line.

Gus Bradley now has the tools at his disposal to craft a good pass rush, one that should force quarterbacks into making poor decisions that the secondary can take advantage of. At the end of the day, it’s not winning in March that counts but winning in January, and these moves means the Raiders are one step closer to their goal.