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Last year’s Raiders were middle of the pack in most defensive categories with one major exception, only the Jets and Jaguars created fewer turnovers. That said, there is no point in discussing last year’s Raiders because this is not the same team. The coaching staff is new and so are a huge number of players. No team made more noise in free agency than Las Vegas and much of their effort was directed at the defense.
There will be a vastly new look on defense under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Some will tag him as a 3-4 guy but that is not completely accurate. We might be better off thinking of Graham’s scheme as an amoeba, as it will constantly be changing shape. On one play we might see two defensive linemen with their hands in the dirt, on the next play there could be five or anywhere in between.
With so many new faces and uncertainty about how some of the old ones will fit into the plan, we are faced with a lot of unknowns here as the Raiders prepare for training camp. That will force a lot of speculation when it comes to the IDP value of many Raiders players.
The first step for IDP managers is to see what position your league host designates Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones. Many sites call them defensive ends, while some list them as linebackers. Some sites even have them split with Crosby at end and Jones at linebacker. This is one of several situations that have many in the IDP community calling for a change to positional classifications.
League host sites are all over the board on this issue. Two possible answers can solve this dilemma. Option one is to create an edge defender position that includes all 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 ends. In this scenario, 3-4 defensive linemen would become tackles. A few host sites have already done this. Other sites are not willing to go there, presumably because it would take some work to adjust their software. For those sites, option two is just as good. Simply leave the position settings as they are but move the players accordingly. All edge players are defensive ends, everyone else is a defensive tackle. Either of these options would greatly simplify what has been a perennial argument in the industry ever since we were scoring leagues on paper. It would also add value to both the edge/defensive end and the always thin tackle positions.
A few sites have already made one of these changes but many continue to stubbornly walk the path of flip-flopping player positions every time a team brings in a new coach or a player signs with a new team. Apparently, they like getting nasty grams from unhappy customers or those that want to argue their decisions. If you find yourself among the growing number of IDP managers/commissioners (aka customers), that would like to see this change, feel free to copy this and send it to your league host. I’ll get off the soap box and back to the task at hand.
When Patrick Graham was hired, one of the first things he did was to have a conversation with Maxx Crosby. Graham reassured the rising young star that he would be played in a manner that would both make him comfortable and take advantage of his talent. What that means exactly, remains to be seen. Crosby has been a hand in the dirt, 4-3 defensive end dating back to high school. Look for Graham to have him try a variety of different things anywhere from rushing out of a two-point stance off the ball, to dropping in coverage. Once the two have established what Crosby is capable of and comfortable with, they can go from there. The only thing for certain here is he will see snaps as a hand-down defensive end.
We know Crosby is an ascending talent with huge potential. He is long at 6-foot-5 quick, tenacious, and has the wingspan of a small jet. Crosby has 25 sacks and a dozen swatted passes over the last three seasons and was the number 14 defensive lineman last year at 36-18-8 with 7 batted passes. All that and he turns 25 in August. If the new scheme plays to his strengths or at least doesn’t disrupt his development, Crosby is going to be even better going forward. If he is still a defensive end in your league, target him as a priority DL2 with top-ten potential.
Chandler Jones is much easier to project in this situation. He has been both a 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker during his career, including four seasons in New England where he totaled 35 sacks with Graham as his position coach. With 105.5 career sacks and 46 career turnovers in ten seasons, Jones is probably heading to the Hall of Fame once his playing career is over.
Jones missed the majority of the 2020 season with a torn biceps. When he returned last year, some speculated the then 31-year-old, was a player in decline. Those critics are nowhere to be found now. His 2021 was not as impressive as the 2019 season when Jones piled up 55 combined tackles, 19 sacks, forced 8 fumbles, and recovered 3, but at 32-8-10.5 with 7 turnovers, he is hardly showing signs of decline.
From a physical perspective, Jones is much like Crosby. Long at 6-foot-5 with a great burst, wide wingspan, and a knack for separating the ball from the carrier. Bringing him on board was a great move for the Raiders, not only from the perspective of his on-field contribution but also for his leadership as a mentor to Crosby. Las Vegas has a long way to go to prove themselves, but they have a great foundation with two of the league’s outstanding edge defenders.
Graham is from the Bill Belichick coaching tree and runs a multiple-front scheme similar to what the Patriots have run for more than a decade. If we look back at those Patriots teams and other defenses coached by Belichick disciples including Graham, one of the things we see consistently is fantasy-friendly production from the interior line positions. Last season is a perfect example. With Graham as the defensive coordinator for the Giants, Austin Johnson was the seventh-ranked tackle, and Dexter Lawrence made the Top 20.
So who on the Raiders roster, will be this year’s version of Austin Johnson? That is a tough call with so little to go on. Those in the running include Johnathan Hankins, Vernon Butler, Bilal Nichols, and possibly one of the rookies, Neil Farrell Jr and Matthew Butler who were fourth and fifth-round picks respectively.
If forced to take a shot on one of these guys now, I would toss a coin between Hankins and Butler. Neither of those players has consistently given us reliable production in the past, but both have shown some potential to do so. Hankins has 16 career sacks spread out over nine years in the league, but 11.5 of those came in two seasons, with a career-best of seven. He has never exceeded 31 solo stops in a season but consistently puts up 35-45 combined tackles and assists.
Butler has never lived up to his first-round draft status but had 31 combined tackles, 6 sacks, and forced 3 fumbles while with the Panthers in 2019. To this point, 2019 remains the only season he was a regular starter as a pro. Looking at his college career where Butler totaled 104 tackles, 4 sacks, and 5 turnovers in his last two years at Louisiana Tech, there is some hope. Maybe this scheme will bring out the play that made Butler a day-one pick.
- DE/OLB Maxx Crosby – No matter what position he is listed at, the numbers will be there
- DE/OLB Chandler Jones – 40+ tackles and double-digit sacks are his norm
- DE/OLB Malcolm Koonce – Injury sleeper that might flourish in the new scheme
- DE/OLB Clelin Ferrell – Titanic first-round bust thus far, maybe the new scheme will help
- DT/DE Jonathan Hankins – Potential DT2
- DT/DE Bilal Nichols – Deep sleeper
- DE/DT Matthew Butler – Watch list player
- DT/NT Vernon Butler – Watch list player
- DT/NT Tyler Lancaster – No impact expected
- NT/DT Neil Farrell Jr – Rookie with some potential in tackle-required leagues
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