The Oakland Raiders made a lot of changes to their defensive roster this offseason, but the safety position is one that was barely touched. Aside from drafting seventh round pick Jonathan Dowling, the Raiders did nothing but bring back the same cast of characters from 2013. But with that being said, the Raiders still expect to see a big improvement at the position through the return of Tyvon Branch, who missed most of last season with an injury.
Branch will be the starter at strong safety while Charles Woodson will be the starter at free safety. Behind them the Raiders brought back Usama Young and Brandian Ross before capping off the group with the aforementioned Dowling.
Before being injured, Branch was not only the best player in the Raiders’ secondary, he was one of the best players on defense, period. Now he is returning to a different looking roster where he finds himself surrounded by players with more experience — some of whom are expected to be better than he. This takes a lot of pressure off him as he tries to fit back into the system after missing so much time.
Playing opposite him is the ninth wonder of the world, the man who never ages: Charles Woodson. He’ll turn 38 this season, but don’t tell him that. He still plays every down as though it is the most important play of the game. He has lost some of his speed, but his mind and eye for the game have helped him make up for that. He was not amazing by any stretch last season, but he was clearly a leader on defense and was still able to make big time plays now and then.
Last year, Ross was the primary replacement for Branch after he was injured. No matter what happens, the Raiders have to hope they do not get stuck in that position again. Ross was borderline terrible at times and has a lot of growing to do before he should be trusted with much playing time. Young, on the other hand, was good when he saw the field. Unfortunately, he was injured and missed a good amount of time. He is a guy that should see a decent amount of time, especially on clear passing downs where he also excels as a pass rusher in the blitz.
Dowling is somewhat of a wild card. Highly touted coming out of high school, Dowling started his college career at Florida before being kicked off of the team for off-the-field issues. He transferred to Western Kentucky, where he excelled. After he was taken by the Raiders in the seventh round, NFL analyst Gil Brandt said he was one of the steals of the draft and would contribute right away on special teams. He played free safety in college but the Raiders have said they may use him at strong safety. It’s almost shocking that they drafted a guy who’s that versatile.
This is a group that doesn’t look too different from last season, but should be considerably better. The return of Branch is huge, and Dowling is a very nice piece as depth who has a very good chance of overtaking Ross as the primary backup. It is also a unit that should benefit from stronger play on the defensive line.
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