The Raiders will heavily depend on their defensive line. Can they live up to expectations and deliver?
Everything seemed great with the Raiders defensive line not that long ago. They drafted edge Tyree Wilson, along with defensive tackles Byron Young and Nesta Silvera in the 2023 NFL Draft. Fast forward a few months and Young is buried on the depth chart while battling injury. Wilson just came back from an injury. He flashed some raw talent and tools on his few plays in the offseason. Wilson also looked lost and uncomfortable. He hadn’t played much since his last season so it made sense. Hopefully, the Raiders defensive linemen can get him up to speed ASAP.
Then there is Chandler Jones. First, the Raiders took last year’s free agency miss and restructured the edge’s deal. They added more years to his deal to lower his cap hit this year and next. The 33-year-old is off one of worst graded PFF seasons. Jones found himself in a great position but didn’t have the same finish as his prior years. Jones also went off on social media after he was locked out of the facility and couldn’t reach the coaches. It remains to be seen if this was a misunderstanding or if the Raiders have another roster move coming. Head coach Josh McDaniels said Jones is away having a personal matter. Either way, it’s not a great look from a mentor on the Raiders defensive line.
A Familiar Hope
Losing Jones puts more pressure on Wilson. If Wilson develops into anything this year, that could allow the Raiders to use Chandler Jones more strategically. Ideally, Wilson could take Jones’ spot as starter. Then, the Raiders could use Jones more exclusively on pass rush downs. They could also move one of the three ends inside on third down. Now, the Raiders will need to figure out what impact Wilson can make instantly. Vegas already needed Wilson to help them improve their pass rush, but that need doubles if Jones is gone for any reason.
Speaking of veterans, the Raiders decided to keep defensive tackle veterans John Jenkins and Adam Butler. Both made some plays in the preseason after joining the team early in the offseason. They offer more size, strength and stacking ability than Butler. That makes sense as a compliment to defensive tackle starters Bilal Nichols and Jerry Tillery. Nichols is better against the pass than the run. Tillery is better against the run then the pass. I think both will get more opportunities to get to the quarterback this year. None of those players received favorable grades from PFF last year.
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Otherwise, Vegas already traded last year’s fourth round pick Neil Farrell. Farrell actually looked decent last year in spots at nose tackle. However, it appears he did not progress enough. The Raiders were willing to send him to the Chiefs for a sixth-round pick. Fifth round pick Matthew Butler played even less than Farrell. Butler really needed to gain some strength last year. Butler was a standout at the Shrine Bowl week and many considered him a great pick after the draft. Either way, both are gone.
Vegas now needs rookie defensive tackle Byron Young to make an immediate impact. Young wasn’t exactly a pocket pusher at Alabama but he has a strong motor and he’s solid against the run. Hopefully the other guys around him set him up for some easy looks on the quarterback. Nose tackle Jade Nesta Silva is also on the 53-man roster after capturing some attention in training camp. Silvera has some tools, including the size and strength to eat some blocks upfront. Still, there is more pressure on them seeing last year’s draft class shipped out.
In the end, we know defensive end Maxx Crosby is going to dominate. Last year, he really took the next step as an elite and complete player. Crosby found ways to get home more and he was much better against the run. He should bring that same consistency this year. Crosby finished top-five at his position, according to PFF. Of course, any of these young guys stepping up means Crosby doesn’t have to do it all. He is only going to see more double teams moving forward.
Strong Opening Test
Vegas is going to get tested right away. The Denver Broncos and quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t cook up much last season but this year is a different story. He is leaner and the Broncos should move him around more. Wilson is also expected to get the ball out quicker in his new offense. That could make for a long day for the Raiders in Week One. Still, Vegas has pretty much dominated Denver for a bit. That’s also why Denver winning at home would be huge. They almost beat the Raiders at home before the Raiders took that game over. Denver also added tackle Mike McGlnchey and guard Ben Powers in free agency to help the offensive line. The Broncos have a balanced offensive attack when all their receivers and running backs are healthy. The Raiders are going to need a strong outing from their defensive line out the gate.
Then, the Raiders go to Buffalo to play a revamped Buffalo Bills offensive line. Buffalo added veteran guard Connor McGovern and drafted O’Cyrus Torrence in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Torrence was widely considered the draft’s best interior linemen. Buffalo should run the ball better with those guards and a new backfield that features Damien Harris along with second-year back James Cook.
Vegas then gets a Pittsburgh offensive line that they faced last season Left tackle Dan Moore beat out rookie first round pick Broderick Jones for the starting job. James Daniels, Chukwuma Okorafor, Isaac Seumalo and Cole Mason are also back after starting every game last season. The Raiders were able to contain the Steelers’ run game but they did not sack Kenny Pickett once in their matchup last year. That needs to change this year if the Raiders want to avoid a slow start to the year. Pittsburgh could be better with a more experienced quarterback in Kenny Pickett this year.
Old Enemy, New Threat
Otherwise, the Raiders face a Chargers offensive line that is strong on the left side with tackle Rashawn Slater and guard Zion Johnson. Both are young and have flashed since entering the league. Johnson played both guard spots last year. Slater missed most of last year after a breakout rookie year. However, the right side is unproven.
Get Home or Stay Home
Ultimately, the Raiders defensive line will have some opportunities to prove themselves versus some good offensive line matchups. This includes a mix of continuity and new talent. If Vegas can help out Crosby the Raiders defensive line has a chance to disrupt a lot. The Silver and Black could find themselves playing a lot of catch up if the defensive line can’t stop the run. They also need to pressure the quarterback to limit the downfield pass plays. Vegas is built to sit on leads. They can really get after the passer and take some chances in coverage with strong defensive line play. Poor defensive line play will just make it easier for the Raiders secondary to get picked apart, especially their linebackers. Those linebackers could also benefit from some stout run play from their interior defensive line too. Last year’s play won’t cut it.
Setting The Course
Overall, the defensive line is the x-factor on this Raiders defense. If Wilson turns into what the Raiders think he could be sooner than later, they get a chance to really take over games with their pass rush. If he struggles then we’ll once again hope for a Chandler Jones resurgence or we will be looking for a veteran in free agency or via trade. In the meantime, the Raiders are going to have to see what sticks as far as the interior rotation. Hopefully they can find two guys who can rush the passer and stop the run equally. In years past, they’ve had to choose between relying on players who were better vs the pass or the run. Luckily, Crosby can play both well.
Either way, everyone on the interior line should play some sort of role as long as they are not a liability. There are reasons to have hope in the defensive line this year. That again mostly goes back to Crosby though. Plus, the injuries to their draft picks and Chandler Jones are leaving room for uncertainty. It’s a lot like similar years because we will be praying for development from our rookies and surprises from veterans.
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