State of the Raiders: Defense

This is the second of a three part series. My first post covered the offense; this post will cover the defense. Now that the free agency dust has more or less settle, the Raiders starters seem to be set. Last year, the defense was flat out bad. In fact, it’s one of the reasons Hue Jackson was replaced by the defensive-minded Dennis Allen. The 2011 Oakland Raiders were 29th in points against/game (27.1) and 29th in yards allowed (387.6). These numbers alone do not tell the whole story. If you, like me, watched the games, then you know the pain of watching the defense cave in the most important times of games. Against Buffalo and Detroit the team lost on last minute drives. In five of the other six losses, the defense never even showed up to the game (I blame the week 7 loss to the Chiefs on the 7 turnovers committed by quarterbacks). Yet, a new scheme is coming to Oakland, and there still exists quite a bit of talent, especially on the defensive line. Here is a breakdown of each positional group, along with a letter grade.

Defensive Line

This group is made up of a wealth of talent and experience. Richard Seymour is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and has become a true leader in the locker room. Fellow DT Tommy Kelly had numbers similar to Seymour’s, and some could argue he was deserving of a nod to Hawaii as well. Defensive end Lamarr Houston has impressed so far during his two year career, and has rare physical ability. DE Matt Shaugnessy has a clean bill of health, and is an above-average starter with a high motor. Desmond Bryant offers versatility in reserve as both a pass-rushing DT or a run-stuffing DE. The Raiders are also reportedly interested in former Giants defensive end David Tollefson, who would offer some much needed pass-rushing abilities. Versatility is the key with the defensive line. If Dennis Allen does implement a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, he’ll have plenty of toys up front to play with. This unit can pressure the quarterback and stop the run, but needs the rest of the team to improve to see its true potential unfold. Grade: A-

Linebackers

Going into the 2011-12 season, I knew we had one of the largest 4-3 linebacker cores in the league. Yes, they were big and fast. But I had my doubts – could they cover? The resounding answer was no, no they couldn’t. Aaron Curry brought more speed and aggressiveness, but still lacks the football IQ and coverage skills necessary of a Will linebacker. Rolando McClain consistently proved to be… inconsistent. Aside from a mid-season arrest, McClain’s season was full of incorrect angles, poor coverage, and over-aggression against the run. He is very talented and was a leader at Alabama, so it is disappointing to see him acclimate to the NFL so slowly. Incumbent starting Sam linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was cut, but offered little more than pass rush. In fact, I find him to be highly over-rated; he’s never tallied more than 69 tackles in a season, despite playing in all but one game for his teams during his six-year career. To put that in perspective, free agent acquisition Philip Wheeler scored 80 tackles in only 11 starts last year. While not the pass rusher Wimbley is, Wheeler is better both in coverage and against the run, and should bring in some much-needed discipline.

This unit is in serious need of depth. Travis Goethl is a serviceable player but has durability concerns. Practice squader Carl Ihenacho is the only other linebacker currently on the roster. Yikes. Look for at least two more players to be brought in for depth and special teams. There’s lots of talent here, but Dennis Allen will need to bring along Curry and McClain (especially) if there will be any improvements from last year. Grade: B-

Secondary

Where do I begin? This unit was so bad that both incumbent starting cornerbacks were cut. They were so bad, Matt Giordano got significant playing time. I think Calvin Johnson just scored again. All kidding aside, a big goal for GM Reggie McKenzie this offseason was to overhaul a broken coverage unit. Stanford Routt’s silly contract was terminated. Chris Johnson was sent packing as well. This left 2011 draft picks Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke as the only NFL-level talent (at corner) on the team. Reggie McKenzie, however, saw an inexpensive solution: enter Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer. Both are big, fast, and experienced cover corners. While not elite talents, they come on-the-cheap, and will at least offer more consistency than last year’s unit. McKenzie pulled from his Packers days by adding CBs Pat LeeĀ  and Brandon Underwood, but neither should see much playing time aside from special teams duties.

The safety positions are set in stone, with incumbent starters Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch giving it another go. My hope is that both thrive in Dennis Allen’s more aggressive/less man-oriented defense. Branch is a stud, and it will be interesting to see how a true defensive mind uses him. Huff will need to be better in coverage and make more plays, or his bloated contract could be ended at year’s end. Talent-wise, this unit is about the same on paper. Can a new scheme make that big of a difference? Let’s hope so. Grade: C+

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Tyvon Branch, Kamerion Wimbley News

Two news stories with importance on the defensive side of the ball were announced today; here’s what I think of them.

Tyvon Branch, S, Franchise Tagged (Jason LaCanfora reported)

Branch is an athletic, young, tackling machine. This was the only option to the franchise tag that made sense for me. Others were calling for Michael Bush to receive it, but you simply can’t sink $13 million into the RB position (between McFadden & the would be franchise number for Bush) when your team is as strapped for cash as the Raiders are. Branch will receive $6 million this year, and provides some continuity for what looks to be a very different secondary in 2012.

Kamerion Wimbley, LB, will be cut if no restructure is agreed upon

The initial report, from Jason LaCanfora, said the Raiders would cut Wimbley if they couldn’t agree on a restructured deal. He’s set to make $11 million over the next four years each on average, $6.5 of which is guaranteed this year. So cutting Wimbley would only save $4.5 million this year, but would free up future cap space. A new league source has said Wimbley is open to listen to contract negotiations, despite a report to the contrary by LaCanfora. My ideal situation would be to find a suitor for the talented, if not inconsistent, linebacker, in hopes to receive some sort of compensation (on top of cap relief).

More in the future Raiders fans. The off-season is just starting to heat up.