The newly minted “Las Vegas Raiders” are heading into their inaugural off-season with some serious holes to address on their roster. Fortunately, they are projected to have around $60+ million in cap space and significant draft capital to address those personnel needs. That capital includes seven selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, two of which are first-round picks and five total within the top-91. Needless to say, GM Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden should be able to add quality front line talent to a group that finished 7-9 last season.
Of all the positions that need an influx of talent, the linebacker is far and away the most pressing. In 2019, that position group only accounted for a total of 5 hits on the QB, nine tackles for loss, eight passes defended and a single interception hauled in by Linebacker Nicholas Morrow. In a league dominated by the passing game, those numbers need to improve dramatically if they expect to be a competitive unit on the defensive side of the football.
Linebackers that can hold up in coverage are coveted by NFL front offices, so they can be very difficult to come by outside of landing one in the draft. Isaiah Simmons could be that guy if the silver and black are fortunate enough to get the chance to take him.
Simmons is a 6’4″, 230-pound athletic monster. He is currently expected to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.40 range and and would instantly become the Raiders most explosive defender. More importantly, he would give Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther a chess piece to counter one of their divisional rival’s best players: Travis Kelce.
Kelce has been a serious match-up nightmare in his seven seasons as the Chiefs starting tight end, hauling in 60 passes for 845 yards in his 12 games against Oakland. This play from the KC/OAK week 2 contest really highlights the mismatch Kelce presents:
There was 1:46 left before halftime and the Chiefs were leading 14-10 with the ball on the Raiders 27-yard line. Kelce is lined up in a reduced set which gives him plenty of room to work away from the safety playing the middle of the field while running his fade route. This play lasts around 6-7 seconds but the outcome was decided in the first two.
Safety Karl Joseph attempts to get a Jam on Kelce but simply doesn’t have the size to slow down his release. To make the situation worse, Joseph attempts his strike with the wrong hand and the All-Pro Tight End makes him pay for it. Kelce clears Joseph’s grasp, Stacks him with ease, and makes the catch before the Safety help can arrive. This touchdown would put Las Vegas in a 21-10 deficit which marked the end of the competitive portion of this contest.
If Las Vegas plans on making runs deep into the playoffs, their seasons could very likely include 3 yearly games against this hated rival. Mayock and Gruden know this and have to find ways to stop Kelce, which is exactly how Simmons could fit into this equation:
Simmons has all of the tools needed to slow down Kelce down. His size and length will allow him to win the same type of jam that doomed Joseph. He also possess the elite speed to make up for any mistake that transpire during the tight end’s initial release. The Raiders had success playing man coverage against Kansas City and would finally have a player they could assign to shadow Kelce.
He would fit Guenther’s system in more ways than simply playing man coverage. As these clips highlight, he can handle playing zone as well as handling the “mug” alignments that Guenther likes to employ on passing downs.
In this first play, we see Simmons drop into the flat in zone coverage. He shows off some quality reaction time and that elite burst to drive on the quarterback as he breaks the pocket. Oakland was much better shutting down screens in recent seasons, but having a player patrolling the flat that can come down hill and level a ball carrier would be a welcome site when in Las Vegas.
In the second clip, Simmons starts off “mugging” in the Strong-A Gap. This is an alignment he would find himself in on many passing down situations. Once again, he shows off his recognition and his incredible range, tracking down and tackling the quarterback as he attempts to escape the pocket. There isn’t a player on the Raiders defensive roster with this level of range and sheer athleticism.
Finding a prospect with such a high ceiling at the teams most glaring position of need could transform a defense that once again ranked in the bottom 3rd of the NFL. Wins can be hard to come by when you give up over 26 points per game (24th in scoring), rank 25th against the pass and end up 31st in forced turnovers. The Raiders defense has been abysmal for years, that needs to change this season.
There’s still a few months to go before the draft, so it is a little early to hone in on how the early picks will likely come off the board. Given how well Simmons is going to perform at the combine, it’s not hard to imagine him being selected long before the team gets to turn with 12th pick. However, if Simmons is on the board when the silver and black get their turn, Mayock and Gruden should consider making Isaiah Simmons the first pick in the history of the Las Vegas Raiders.