A position of weakness is all of a sudden a potential area of strength for the Raiders, who landed the top linebacker on the market on Tuesday, signing Los Angeles Rams free agent Cory Littleton. Coupled with the addition of former Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski on Monday, the Raiders have executed a nearly complete overhaul of a position that was a major liability in 2019.
The acquisitions — both of which can become official on Wednesday — are part of an ambitious Raiders offseason that has seen them secure new players at rapid speed.
Littleton headlined an active second day of free agency on Tuesday that saw the Raiders add three former Dallas Cowboys in tight end Jason Witten, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Jeff Heath and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Carl Nassib. They join Kwiatkoski and former Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, both of whom agreed to contracts with the Raiders on Monday.
The 37-year-old Witten returned from his one-year retirement last year to catch 63 passes for 529 yards and four touchdowns. The 16-year veteran is expected to join Darren Waller and Foster Moreau, who is coming off a knee injury, to form a deep Raiders tight end group.
Just as importantly, he will be a veteran leader in a young Raiders locker room. That mentoring role could be a crucial element as the Raiders face an uncertain and likely condensed offseason due to the coronavirus while making the move from Oakland to Las Vegas.
Collins, 25, has experience playing under new Raiders defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who served as the Cowboys defensive coordinator and defensive line coach from 2014 to 2019. Collins is viewed as a young player on the rise. He had four sacks, 21 quarterback pressures and 10 quarterback hits last year. Over his four-year career, Collins has 14.5 sacks, 20 tackles for losses and 40 quarterback hits.
The interior push he creates is an element the Raiders prioritized this offseason and should help create edge pass-rush opportunities for young defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell.
The Raiders added more pass rush ability in reeling in the 26-year-old Nassib, who has 12.5 sacks over the last two years and 18 for his career over 59 games and 32 starts.
Heath, 28, is a three-year starter who can play both safety positions and will join Johnathan Abram on the back end of the Raiders’ secondary.
Littleton was the big catch on Tuesday, though, and securing him was a coup that created a buzz throughout the Raiders’ building.
Undrafted out of Washington in 2015, Littleton has risen from a special teams star to one of the NFL’s best all-around linebackers. A sideline-to-sideline defender who can also rush the passer, Littleton registered 134 tackles last year — seventh best in the NFL for linebackers — while fanning on just five tackles. His 3.6 missed tackle percentage was the best in the NFL among linebackers with 60 or more tackles.
Littleton is also an elite pass-cover linebacker and was fifth-best at that position with nine passes defended in 2019. He has 23 over the last two seasons.
Littleton grew up in San Diego County, so the proximity of his hometown to Las Vegas was an obvious asset in the Raiders’ pursuit.
Littleton has been connected to the Raiders all offseason and was a priority target when the free agent tampering period opened on Monday. League speculation indicated Littleton was seeking a contract with an annual average salary in the $14 to $15 million range, but the Raiders were able to secure him for $36 million over three seasons.
Combined with Kwiatkoski’s three-year, $21 million deal, the Raiders were able to fill two critical positions at an annual yearly salary rate of $19 million.
The Raiders entered free agency with roughly $55 million to spend under the salary cap and have an estimated $18 million remaining, so there is still room to make upgrades at other positions.
Denver Broncos shutdown corner Chris Harris has been linked to the Raiders for sometime, now more than ever with Byron Jones leaving the Dallas Cowboys for a record-breaking contract with the Miami Dolphins. The Raiders made a big push for Jones, but the ultimate price tag was beyond their comfort zone. Harris is expected to be a more reasonable get, although sitting atop the cornerback market now creates a demand.
The Raiders have also been linked to New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson, who would help address the long-ball threat they were missing last year. The Raiders will certainly look to the draft for wide receiver help — and sitting with the 12th overall pick they could be choosing among Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. Any of the three would go a long way toward completing an otherwise strong Raiders offense.
Nevertheless, they could still look to add a veteran receiver through free agency at the right price.