ALAMEDA, Calif. — While the Raiders raised a few eyebrows by releasing presumed starting outside linebacker — and Las Vegas native — Brandon Marshall last week, there were a few factors at play.
General manager Mike Mayock said on Saturday that the team wanted to give Marshall a head start in the free agent market out of respect to him as a veteran. But Mayock mentioned another aspect of the NFL that affects both roster construction and the Raiders’ Xs and Os.
“I think what really happened is if we’re only going to keep four or five linebackers, which is the way the NFL is going these days because of the spread offenses, that fourth or fifth linebacker has got to be a special teams player,” Mayock said.
“Spread offenses” used to be taboo in the NFL, mainly reserved for the college game.But over the last few years, the entire NFL has shifted to make the spread the norm.
This has mainly come in the form of three wide-receiver sets, the most popular of which is “11 personnel.” That means an offense has one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers,along with the quarterback and five offensive linemen.
To illustrate the change, “Football Outsiders” has been tracking data on personnel groupings since 2010. That year, teams were using “11 personnel” less than 40 percent of the time. In 2018, teams used “11 personnel” on a record 64.2 percent of snaps.
How does that affect the Raiders? Because teams are spending the majority of the time in formations with three wide receivers, the Raiders’ defense has to combat it by playing more defensive backs who have the speed and body type to keep up. Consequently, that means the club will utilize fewer linebackers. They currently only have fiveon the 53-man roster.
And that, along with the Raiders having surrendered a league-worst 36 touchdown passes last season, also explains why they signed free agent Lamarcus Joyner to a four-year contract worth up to $42 million — he’s going to be playing a lot of snaps.
“We’re kind of built to be a nickel’ defense,” Gruden said, referring to defensive sets with five defensive backs. “We’re also carrying some big bodies that will help us if we have to play big ball.”
One of those players is linebacker Nicholas Morrow, who became a starter after Marshall’s release. Listed at 6-feet and 225 pounds, Morrow originally signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent in May 2017 and has been with the club ever since. He’s played in all 32 games the last two seasons, starting 10 on defense while also contributing heavily on special teams.
Given his youth and versatility, Morrow is exactly the kind of linebacker Mayock was talking about.
“I think Nick is on the rise. He’s good in coverage, he’s quietly moving up the ranks in this league and in this organization,” Gruden said. “His instincts finding the ball are really good. He’s a good blitzer. He’s extremely athletic, comfortable in space, good one-on-one tackler — and a better tackler than you think. He plays a lot bigger than he looks.”
As the Raiders begin the season Monday night against the Denver Broncos — a team with a revamped offense with new head coach Vic Fangio’s staff and a new quarterback in Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco — the Raiders’ coverage skills and athleticism will be vital to their success.