More than half of the starting 11 on defense are new faces. The Raiders replaced three-quarters of the starting defensive line, both starting corners and added to the general depth of the defense during free agency. Then, they spent six of their eight draft picks on defensive players.
Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Khalil Mack, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are all expected to start; all will wear silver and black for the first time. Of the remaining five players, four are only in their second year with the team. Tyvon Branch is the only player who has been with the Raiders for more than two seasons (Charles Woodson’s first stint not being counted here).
In year two of the rebuild, the Raiders appear to be making headway in the front seven, but their secondary continues to be the weakest unit on the entire roster.
The two guys slotted early on to be the starters have been duds. D.J. Hayden will start the season on the PUP list and Brown looked horrific in the preseason. If Brown continues this way he may lose his starting job. Rogers has looked better than expected, but is better suited to play in the nickel than outside.
Behind them are some promising young players in Chimdi Chekwa, T.J. Carrie and Neiko Thorpe. But having promise and being ready to perform on the big stage are two different things. All three of these guys will see playing time this year and take some lumps as they learn the position. Good for the future of the team … maybe not so good for the present.
At safety, the Raiders are better but not great. Branch returns from an injury that kept him out most of 2013 and will be a welcomed addition. His partner will be the seemingly ageless Woodson — except he’s shown some signs of his age this preseason.
The front seven is where the Raiders hope to stand out. The linebackers are probably the strongest starting unit on the team with Sio Moore, Nick Roach and Mack. The depth is decent with super sub Miles Burris and special teams stud Kaluka Maiava.
On the defensive line, the Raiders will start Woodley, Smith, Pat Sims and Tuck. The added guys were supposed to be the big news but in the preseason it was Sims who caught everyone’s eyes. Sims looks like a man on a mission while the rest are still trying to show that they still have enough gas in the tank to take on anoher mission.
Woodley has shown sparks of his old self and gives hope he can still play. Smith hasn’t looked bad but also hasn’t shown a whole lot while Tuck hasn’t really shown anything. If the Raiders defense is going to have success this season, the new guys need to grow up quickly.
Without consistent pressure from the front four, the Raiders will be in serious trouble on defense once again. Their depth at defensive tackle means stopping the run shouldn’t be a major concern, but if teams are able to convert third-and-long consistently again it won’t matter. This defensive line needs to be great in order to hide the deficiencies in the secondary. They will get some help with blitzes from the linebackers and the occasional safety blitz, but they need to get pressure by themselves.
The starting 11 on defense is upgraded from 2013 but it remains to be seen by how much. The Raiders tried to overload on pass rushers and thoroughly address one problem area in hopes it would alleviate pressure on the other. But if the defensive line doesn’t perform, the secondary is going to look every bit as bad as it is.