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Graney: Raiders defense could be even better than forecast

Updated June 12, 2024 - 4:46 pm

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched the Raiders the last nine games of the 2023 season. Shouldn’t come as a shock the defense is far ahead of the offense right now. Shouldn’t at all raise eyebrows.

Neither should this: The team just might be better defensively this season than already forecast. And that’s saying something.

That’s the way things appeared as mandatory minicamp got underway this week. The defenders in black jerseys made plays time and again. The offensive players in white struggled.

Some of it is obvious: The offense is learning a new system under coordinator Luke Getsy. Learning the ins and outs of it. Learning everything there is to know.

So the fact a defense under third-year coordinator Patrick Graham has a substantial edge in June makes sense. It should.

Ryan fired up

If it’s true the Raiders will go as far as their defensive line takes them, odds favor more stops than not. It has the makings of one of the NFL’s best fronts.

Which is what happens when you have defensive end Maxx Crosby and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins patrolling things.

“When you talk about Maxx Crosby, you’re talking about the best defensive player in the league,” senior defensive assistant coach Rob Ryan said. “Probably in the history that I’ve ever seen and I’ve only been around it over 30 years. But he’s that good.

“Maxx makes everyone tougher. Maxx makes everyone better. Maxx makes everyone get tattoos.

“Christian Wilkins is arguably the best tackle in the league. What stands out is their work ethic. They’re gym rats, old-school players. They are phenomenal. They set the tone.”

Ryan was robust in his praise of all things Raiders. About players like linebacker Robert Spillane and defensive end Malcolm Koonce and safeties Marcus Epps and Tre’von Moehrig and cornerbacks Jack Jones and Nate Hobbs.

He even said Antonio Pierce is the NFL’s best coach. Said Mark Davis is its best owner.

He stopped short of calling either Aidan O’Connell or Gardner Minshew its best quarterback, which means Ryan has paid close attention to that side of the ball the last few days.

(Yeah. Things weren’t good at the position again Wednesday).

Ryan’s excitement about this defense is obvious. The Raiders allowed 16 points per game their final nine contests.

But anticipation is just that. The key is not getting caught up in all the hype. It’s about discipline. About getting better every snap, every day. Focus on the work. The process.

Stay present.

“Right now, everybody’s healthy, everyone’s happy, everyone’s sun is bright, things are smooth,” Crosby said. “You don’t have games. You don’t have extra media attention. So, everything’s rainbows and butterflies. But when the real bullets are flying, that’s when you figure out who your guys are.”

Good luck

There are a lot of guys on this defense. Communication is better. They’re playing at a different speed. If they can find a competent starting cornerback opposite Jones, there will be few weak spots for opponents to attack.

It’s the side of the ball that could make all the difference in a playoff push or not. That could carry that new offense to begin the season. The Raiders right now can’t get enough reps when trying to move the ball.

Sure. They’re not in pads yet. But the eye test is real. And it tells you this defense has a special look to it.

“Wait and see,” Ryan said. “I don’t care what you say. Good luck. Good luck handling our people. Good luck. By the end of last year, you saw a great defense. I think that’s what you’re going to see this year.

“In fact, I know that’s what you’re going to see this year.”

Maybe even better than folks think.

And that’s saying something.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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