The Las Vegas Raiders are one of the hardest teams to project entering the 2021 season. The team finished 8-8 in 2020, marking the third straight year that Jon Gruden’s team has missed the playoffs. While his seat isn’t hot yet as he prepares for year four of his 10-year deal, if they miss the playoffs this season, we could begin to see the seat become warm.
In order to make the playoffs this season, the Raiders will need to greatly improve a defense that has been among the league’s worst since Gruden took over back in 2018. Las Vegas wisely has prioritized addressing the defensive side of the football this offseason and has made some really quality moves that I think will pay dividends.
First off, the Raiders hired former Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to lead their defense as the team’s new defensive coordinator. Bradley joins the Raiders after four very successful years with the Chargers—the team finished in the top 10 in total defense three out of his four seasons. Bradley is a substantial improvement over ex-defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and this unit should be much better from a schematic and preparation standpoint.
Of course, Bradley can call a perfect game but if the Raiders don’t have the players to execute his system properly then nothing will really change. Las Vegas did an excellent job this offseason re-tooling the defensive side of the football and providing Bradley talent that he will hope to maximize. The team’s marquee addition is pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who signed in free agency and looks to be Bradley’s version of Melvin Ingram—a player who saw tremendous success playing the LEO position in Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. The Raiders also signed veteran corner Casey Hayward, safety Karl Joseph, and defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, all of whom should contribute this season for the Silver and Black.
While the Raiders certainly did well to address the defensive side of the football in free agency, their best and most impactful addition might actually be a player who they added through the draft.
Many, including myself, were absolutely stunned when TCU safety Tre’von Moehrig was available in the middle of the second round of this year’s NFL draft. Widely expected to be a first-round pick and the first safety off the board, Moehrig fell due to a back injury that popped up on NFL teams' radars during his pro day. Teams reportedly had concerns about his back after an MRI revealed some irregularities, but per reports, he has been fully cleared and the injury shouldn’t be a factor moving forward. Had Moehrig never had the back pop up, it is extremely likely that he would have been selected within the top 25 picks.
General manager Mike Mayock was floored when he realized that Moehrig was sliding. As a matter of fact, as Moehrig continued to slide on day one, Mayock said that they were strongly considering trading back up into the first round to select him as he was far and away their highest-ranked player on their board. In the end, the Raiders were able to make a small trade up in the second round moving from 48 to 43 to secure Moehrig and get their free safety of the future.
The selection of Moehrig at pick No. 43 is arguably the biggest steal of this year’s draft and one that will have a huge impact on the Raiders' season. Moehrig is an excellent athlete and has very good size for the free safety position. He is one of the best pure cover safeties to come out of the draft in years, possesses outstanding range in the back end, and has the size and fluidity to cover in man coverage. Moehrig is a hyper-instinctive player who always puts himself in a position to make plays on the football and he has proven to have outstanding ball skills with seven career interceptions during his time at TCU. He is a versatile player who has played single-high, split safety, and in the slot all with relatively high levels of success. His presence in the back end will go a long way in improving a defense that gave up 7.8 yards per attempt last year, which ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
Moehrig is also an outstanding scheme fit playing under Bradley’s tutelage. Bradley comes from the Seattle tree that utilizes heavy doses for base cover three coverages. In Bradley’s cover three scheme, the free safety is essentially a center fielder who needs to have the speed and range to cover red line to red line but also has to have a quick trigger when it comes to filling the run downhill. Moehrig’s best attributes as a player are his range, ball skills, and instincts, all of which he will be able to showcase as a single-high free safety. Mayock said as much when he spoke to the media after an OTA practice, as he called Moehrig the “prototype” for Bradley’s scheme. Moehrig may not be the same level of player as Earl Thomas, but it’s easy to envision him playing that same role for Bradley.
The Raiders' secondary has long been their Achilles heel. The team has been known for blown coverages and missed assignments, often causing late-game explosive plays which usually cost the Raiders football games. With corners Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette primed to take a next step in their development, and with strong safety Johnathan Abram playing more in the box and hopefully a bit more controlled, things should begin to turn around for this unit.
Moehrig’s impact on this defense should be felt from day one and his presence in the back end will only make the play of the other players in the secondary that much better. If Moehrig plays to the level I believe he can, I think this defense takes a huge step forward and Moehrig will find himself in contention for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
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