This year’s free agency period hasn’t gone like most would have expected it to for the Oakland Raider. Not because they’ve been relatively quiet, that much isn’t a surprise. It’s that their free agent signings have focused almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball.
Part of that is likely due to the quality of defensive players that will be available in this year’s draft. Part of it was likely due to the fact that money was flying like crazy once again in free agency and many of the players actually capable of making an impact were massively overpaid.
But part of it may have been that Reggie McKenzie and crew feel like they’ve already made a big time move to upgrade the defense.
When John Pagano was signed by the Raiders, there was a lot of talk about what role he might fill with the ambiguous title of Assistant Head Coach for Defense. And because it’s unclear exactly how he will fit in with the Oakland coaching staff, it’s hard to tell exactly how big of an impact he will have.
The hope, of course, is that he will have a big impact.
Last offseason, after the Raiders signed Bruce Irvin. fans were on Twitter and other social media making jokes about how quarterbacks in the AFC West were likely having nightmares. Some predicted the Raiders would have a top tier defense to go along with their top tier offense.
Fast forward a year and people want Sean Smith cut (a guy who most were clamoring massively for last year) and the Raiders were dead last in sacks.
So what happened? Part of it was Raiders fans getting ahead of themselves, but part of it was also the defense underperforming.
There is a lot of talent on the Raiders defense and while there are still clearly deficiencies that need to be addressed, this is not a roster that is devoid of talent.
In 2o13 the Raiders defense finished 22nd in total defense and were top ten in sacks. That’s the year before Khalil Mack was drafted. You simply won’t convince me that the current Raiders roster is worse than the roster in 2013. Or in 2012, for that matter, when the Raiders finished with the 18th overall ranked defense in the league.
As I note much of last season, the Raiders defensive struggles were largely due to poor coaching. This roster is better than what it showed and you know this because Dennis Allen did more with less.
Think about that for a minute. Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver had a better statistical defense with a worse roster than Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton, Jr.
Because of that, Reggie McKenzie likely thinks what I think. This is a defensive roster that should have ranked somewhere in the top half of the league. No, it wasn’t a top ten roster but top 15-20? It probably was. But it massively underachieved with Norton.
A major reason why they underachieved so badly was the lack of a pass rush. The Raiders finished dead last in sacks despite Khalil Mack winning the Defensive Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Pagano is a guy who is known for his ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. His addition is likely intended to help Ken Norton. Jr. with every aspect of being a defensive coordinator, but perhaps most importantly, he’s here to help the pass rush get better.
And if the pass rush gets better, the entire defense gets better. The secondary doesn’t have to cover for nearly as long with a good pass rush and guys like Sean Smith suddenly look a lot better.
The Raiders definitely need to add talent, and will do so in the draft. But their choice to do very little on the defensive side of the ball in free agency may point to the fact that they believe this Raiders defense is better than it showed last season and has already been massively upgraded with the addition of Pagano.
Personally, I fall somewhere in between the fans who are irate about the lack of defensive signings and McKenzie, who seems to not feel a big push to upgrade defense right away. Personally, I would have liked one clear upgrade at any one position on defense so that the Raiders could head into the draft knowing at the very least, the defense had been upgraded in one place. That takes pressure off of draft picks to perform and helps the defense improve faster.
That being said, I can also see why the Raiders might think this team is really only a couple of defensive linemen away from being a whole lot better in 2017.