The Raiders took steps in the right direction in 2019 getting their defense in order. The drafting of defensive linemen Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell and cornerback Trayvon Mullen produced first-year starters.
While safety Johnathan Abram, one of the Raiders’ three first-round picks, missed all but one game of his rookie season with a torn rotator cuff injury, the organization views him as a big-time piece.
Unlike an offense that seems a player or two away from potentially being elite, the defense still needs help across the board. Linebacker, in particular, is a position that requires an infusion of playmakers.
Opposing offenses exploited the Raiders’ linebackers last year. Their inability to provide adequate pass coverage was a season-long issue.
With Tahir Whitehead the lone starter under contract, expect this group to look significantly different next season.
The Raiders are well positioned to add multiple starters at linebacker in the NFL draft with two first-round picks and three more in the third. That search will kick into high gear next week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
First, they need to examine a deep pool of free-agent options, especially with nearly $52 million in projected cap space. Here are some free agent options to watch:
1. Cory Littleton, Rams. Age: 26
The Raiders need to add surefire difference-makers. That means investing a big chunk of their cap space to one player — and Littleton is that type of player.
Should he hit the open market, the Raiders will be among a handful of teams vying for his services. The cost will be significant, but he is worth the investment.
Undrafted out of Washington in 2015, Littleton has risen from a special teams star to one of the NFL best all-around linebackers. He has 259 tackles, 7.5 sacks, five interceptions and four fumble recoveries since becoming a starter in 2018.
A sideline-to-sideline defender who can also rush the passer, Littleton registered 134 tackles last year — sixth best in the NFL for linebackers — while fanning on five tackles. His 3.6 missed tackle percentage was the best in the NFL among linebackers with 60 or more tackles.
What makes Littleton compelling is his elite pass coverage skills. He was fifth best among linebackers with nine passes defended in 2019 — he has 23 over the last two seasons – and according to various grading sites, he measures among the best at his position in pass coverage.
Littleton is a priority for the Rams, but they have multiple pending free agents and roughly $15 million in projected cap space. His rapidly increasing price tag will land him between $13 million and $14 million in annual salary and $30 million to $35 million in guarantees based on the recent contracts given to Jaylon Smith of the Cowboys and Shaq Thompson of the Panthers.
2. Joe Schobert, Browns. Age: 26
Schobert, a fifth-year player from Wisconsin, isn’t as sure a tackler as Littleton, as evidenced by his 15 missed tackles in 2019. But his 133 total tackles and the 394 tackles he has amassed over his first four NFL seasons indicates an ability to dissect the run and get to the ball carrier. His tackling problems are a minor issue, and he’s still young enough to improve.
Schobert has been an excellent pass defender throughout his career and finished last season with four interceptions and nine passes defended.
Reports out of Cleveland indicate the Browns are prepared to let Schobert test the market. While he isn’t likely to command the same money as Littleton, his age, production level and upside will be enticing to many teams. The Raiders are expected to be one of them.
3. De’Vondre Campbell, Falcons. Age: 26
A fourth-round pick out of Minnesota in 2016, Campbell has steadily improved over his first four seasons and has racked up 90 or more tackles in each of his past three seasons. That includes the career-high 129 tackles he posted in 2019, which included six tackles for losses, two sacks, nine quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles. This is a big, physical and sound tackler, as evidenced by his impressive 5.1 missed tackle percentage.
In addition to leading the Falcons in tackles last year, he also provided solid pass coverage, often lined up against opposing tight ends, while coming up with two interceptions and five pass breakups.
Campbell is a classic draft-and-develop success story that teams typically covet. The Falcons will do their best to retain him, but given the projected $7 million or so they have to spend under the cap after accounting for their draft allotment, Campbell could fall through the cracks. The Raiders would be wise to keep track, even as a complement to another free agent linebacker pick up.
4. Blake Martinez, Packers. Age: 26
The Raiders are well aware of Martinez, who played at Stanford, and the 26-year-old tackling machine would be a nice fit. Martinez has 441 tackles during the past three seasons with 10 sacks and 25 tackles for losses. His 155 total tackles last year were second in the NFL.
Martinez missed 18 tackles last year, which dings his overall run-defense grade, but like Schobert, he’s still young enough to improve in that area, and it’s important to note he played a chunk of the season with a broken hand.
He also made impact tackles as he was ranked third among off-ball linebackers with 37 run stops by Pro Football Focus, a stat that measures 1st-and-10 run tackles that limit the runner to three yards or fewer.
Martinez isn’t as athletic as Littleton or Schobert, but he’s solid in pass coverage and would be an upgrade on a Raiders team in need of dependable linebackers.