Part 1, on new line coach Terrell Williams, can be read here.
CONTINUITY IN 2011, CHANGE IN 2012
The Raiders took a year off from bringing in talent on the defensive line in the 2011 offseason, opting to weather the labor strife by maintaining continuity on their most productive unit.
The new Raiders regime let nearly all of the backups from 2011 go, and has brought in some intriguing players to try to revitalize the line. Gone are converted linebackers Kamerion Wimbley, Jarvis Moss, and Trevor Scott, as well as run-stuffer John Henderson. Looking at how Scott and Moss performed last season, it is tempting to suggest a certain addition by subtraction. Scott seemed to never have fully recovered from his devastating injury in 2010, never flashing the form he displayed when getting onto the field in his first seasons in the league. Moss struggled filling in for the injured Matt Shaughnessy, and his lack of production validated the Broncos decision a year earlier to give up on the former first round pick. Scott is now fighting for a spot on the Patriots roster, while Moss has yet to be signed anywhere.
Wimbley and Henderson both were major contributors for the Raiders last season, and the Raiders figure to struggle some in replacing them. Still, both had some weaknesses, and in those areas the Raiders can hope to improve. It is conceivable thought doubtful that the Raiders could bring Henderson back at some point, as he has yet to sign anywhere after being cut by the Raiders for failing his physical at the beginning of the offseason. Reports at the time had Big John retiring, but his agent disputed that claim. According to the folks at Pro Football Focus, Henderson was a monster when he was on the field for Oakland in 2010 and 2011; eating up bodies and stuffing runners, he was a vital part of a line that suffered against the ground game and struggled to keep Richard Seymour on the field. On the other hand, Henderson's own injuries kept him out plenty, and between his absences and the need for Desmond Bryant to fill in at end, Seymour too often had to man the position whilst less than 100%. This season, the Raiders will hope to get younger and fresher on the interior of the line; while they will be unlikely to upgrade on the quality of Henderson's snaps, some healthy bodies might help upgrade the unit overall.
Wimbley was an important part of the Raiders defensive line last season, playing essentially as a two down linebacker and a third down pass rusher at defensive end. With the Raiders struggling to get effective ends onto the field most of the season, they needed production out of Wimbley. In the Thursday night game against the Chargers, he delivered big time: his four sacks against an overmatched Brandon Dombrowski after Marcus McNeill's early injury were vital to Oakland getting the first win of the Carson Palmer era. He was also especially effective in the Monday Night opener in Denver. But outside of his dominance in the nationally televised games, Wimbley had his struggles, and would go into too-long stretches where he didn't make an impact in the pass rush. He also was at times ineffective in pass coverage and against the run. No doubt, the Raiders wanted to keep Wimbley, but after the league voided the $3.5 million extension the Raiders gave him last offseason (ironically, because it was too much of a pay increase over the 2010 salary of the former first rounder), Oakland was forced to use the franchise tag on him. They signed him to a long term contract in training camp to bring in other players under the salary cap, but his new contract was just too expensive for new GM Reggie McKenzie to keep on the books, and he was released before signing with the Titans. While the Raiders will struggle to replace Wimbley's skills as an outside rusher, the hope is that improvements in other areas can make up for it, and that more diversity in scheme and blitzing will up the pressure on opposing passers.
THE RETURNING CORE
The most significant change for the Raiders D-line from a season ago could simply be the health of Matt Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy scarcely cracked the starting lineup until Trevor Scott was lost to injury in 2010, but even before that point many observers felt the 2009 third round pick out of Wisconsin was the Raiders' best defensive end. With only one season left on his contract, and with his shoulder injury fully healed, it's expected that Shaughnessy will bounce back with a big season in 2012. Shaughnessy is probably a better pure pass rusher than his counterpart at end, the converted tackle Lamarr Houston. Moreover, Shaughnessy has been touted as a superior run defender, with Seymour recently pinning the Raiders struggles against the ground game in large part on the loss of Shaughnessy and suggesting he might be the best run-stopping defensive end in the game. The biggest question looming over Shaughnessy might just be what role he can carve out when the Raiders go to a 3-4 base defense; he's somewhat undersized to play DE in that defense, but might not be well suited to playing standing up as an outside linebacker. Then again, Tim Kawakami's recent report suggests the Raiders might have him moving all over the field, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Shaughnessy play well as a 3-4 OLB. Many fans will remember the big interception he had when the Raiders put on a zone blitz against Alex Smith in the preseason game last year in San Francisco; maybe the new regime would like to see more of the same.
Another player who doesn't figure to be as strong in the 3-4 is Tommy Kelly, but coach Allen has stated his belief Kelly can succeed as a nose tackle. Kelly really came on as an interior pass rusher under former line coach Mike Waufle, and was happy to not have to carry the extra tonnage typically required of a nose guard. He had earlier put on a lot of weight in the Rob Ryan years, but with the return to the more simplified scheme under Waufle, had become a more explosive player by dropping the weight. It's fair to suggest he isn't an ideal fit for a 3-4 alignment, and may be better suited to play at end when Oakland lines up in it. That having been said, the Raiders aren't moving to a 3-4 base defense, but rather intend to have a hybrid defense with multiple looks. That hybrid scheme could just make Kelly - and Shaughnessy - more effective overall by giving them more time off the field, leaving them more fresh for their reps in the 4-3 alignment. Then again, Steve Corkran has reported that Kelly is working hard at playing the nose in the 3-4, and there's no certain reason to expect him to fail in that role. It will be interesting to keep an eye on how the new regime utilizes Kelly, who finally flourished the past two seasons, combining for 14.5 sacks and generally playing well against the run.
A number of players already on the Raiders roster would seem to benefit from the more hybrid scheme. Richard Seymour established Hall of Fame level credentials as a 3-4 DE with New England before transitioning to the 4-3 with the Raiders; with his dominance as a 4-3 DT when healthy, he could be the Raider who benefits the most from the mixing and matching of alignments. Lamarr Houston played DT in college before becoming a 4-3 DE for Oakland, and he has the size, power, and motor to excel as a 3-4 DE. Reports this week state that he's dropped around twenty pounds in the offseason, which could help him as an edge rusher; then again, he stated the staff wanted his weight a little higher than the 285 he's at now, which makes some sense if they want him as a stout 3-4 end. Nonetheless, he's been a consistent player for the Raiders in his two years, even if his grinding style has caused many fans to be on his case about a lack of flashy plays and sacks. Those two figure to be the Raiders' base ends in a 3-4 alignment.
At nose tackle, if Kelly isn't up to the job, Desmond Bryant could step in. Reports out of training camp suggest it was Bryant, rather than Kelly, manning the nose when the Raiders switched alignments. In his press conference, Allen seemed to support Bryant's case for manning that role despite his sub-300-pound size. Allen referenced Dallas' defense, anchored in recent years by Jay Ratliff, who has earned All-Pro honors and is roughly the same size as Bryant. While Bryant may not be an ideal nose tackle to some, his time filling in at DE last season confirmed his versatility. If he weren't being considered to man the middle, he would also seem a decent candidate to perform as an end in the 3-4 defense. Since he showed last season he can be a solid contributor as an end in the 4-3, there's plenty of reason to expect a big season out of the undrafted Harvard grad, with him lining up all over the Raiders' line.
The Raiders only added one veteran to the mix at line this season, but the choice makes an awful lot of sense given the new staff's emphasis on hybridity and multiplicity. Dave Tollefson was drafted by the Packers (back when McKenzie was in their front office) after one of the lengthier college football careers you'll ever hear of, when he redshirted with regularity due to a series of injuries. He didn't stick in Green Bay, and the following season the Raiders gave him a shot. He ended up being signed off their practice squad by the Giants, where he played under Waufle and won a couple Super Bowls. Not a flashy playmaker, Tollefson was brought on board for his leadership and ability to line up in a lot of different positions, figuring to be in the rotation on occasion at both DT and OLB in addition to his regular role as a DE. Tollefson would figure to find time on the field in both the 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. Reports out of camp have unsurprisingly stated he's being lined up all over the place, and is making plays everywhere.
Beyond the line, Philip Wheeler was signed to replace salary cap casualty Wimbley, and Oakland hopes that between Wheeler and fourth round pick Miles Burris the linebacking corps can provide enough pressure to make up for Wimbley's absence. Wheeler has only two career sacks to his name, but his first three years in the league he played mostly as a backup at middle linebacker before being converted to the outside last season in Indianapolis' Tampa-2 scheme. He's been talking up how much he'd like to pass rush in a scheme that will put him in position to do so, after rarely getting the chance in a defense centered around the edge rush of Freeney and Mathis. His size will always be a bit of a concern, but his outstanding speed might make him a considerable weapon. Burris comes to Oakland from San Diego State, where he starred in the Aztecs' unconventional 3-3-5 base defense, lining up all over the field and picking up 19 career sacks. While he may not have much to contribute early on, the Raiders will certainly try to put him in position to make some big plays rushing the passer. With Aaron Curry on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Burris has been getting the first team reps opposite Wheeler, and may end up seeing time as a starter on the outside if Curry is unable to return.
The Raiders added a couple of defensive linemen in the draft, and both look like they will survive training camp and make the roster. Jack Crawford, the fifth rounder from Penn State, came late to football, moving to the States from the UK in high school to play basketball before falling in love with American football. While he is raw for a defensive end, he has the size and strength to excel down the line, and may make an impact spelling Houston or Shaughnessy on passing downs. He's shown thus far in camp that he can get to the quarterback. More recently, he has missed time with injury, but is expected to recover before long. In the sixth round, the Raiders drafted another defensive lineman not from the US, Christos Bilukidi out of Georgia State. Georgia State just started its football program, so the Angolan-born Bilukidi might have been a tad overlooked. He's fighting for a position in the Raiders rotation at defensive tackle, and reports from camp indicate he's being given a shot to show what he can do lined up as the nose guard in the 3-4. Bilukidi is closer to the size of a conventional nose tackle than Desmond Bryant, so if he takes to the position he might end up as a regular sooner than expected. He also made an impression when he read a screen pass from Terrelle Pryor in camp, intercepting the ball and returning it for a touchdown.
While there are some players who have spent time with the Raiders previously who could earn a spot on the roster in Mason Brodine and Jamie Cumbie, a couple of undrafted rookies may prove to be more intriguing. Dominique Hamilton out of Missouri is a big defensive tackle. While some feel he doesn't have what it takes to play nose in a 3-4, he could step into the role vacated by John Henderson as a designated run stuffer in the 4-3 alignment. He didn't show much pass rush in college - although he contends he improved greatly in that area as a senior - but the Raiders could use a big man to eat up blocks on running downs to keep Kelly, Seymour, and Bryant fresh. Onlookers at camp have had very positive things to say about his performance, and if he doesn't make Oakland's 53-man roster, he seems a lock to be signed to either an active roster or practice squad somewhere in the league.
Another dark horse undrafted free agent is Wayne Dorsey out of the University of Mississippi, who is trying to make the team at defensive end. In two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast, Dorsey racked up 15 sacks before transferring to Ole Miss. The Rebels struggled in Dorsey's two seasons there, which helps explain why Dorsey's 3.0 sacks in half a season still managed to lead the team last year. Despite having little to show for his two seasons at Ole Miss, Dorsey's size and strength make him an intriguing candidate to help out Oakland's edge rush in 2012 and beyond. At the moment he looks like he could be ticketed for the practice squad, but if he flashes enough in the preseason, he might earn a spot on the active roster in Oakland or elsewhere.
Improving upon the Mike Waufle era won't be easy for the Raiders' defensive line, but then again, last year's performance against the run almost gives them nowhere to go but up. While the Raiders lost important contributors, as well as a respected veteran coach, the return of Matt Shaughnessy, the continuing development of Lamarr Houston and Desmond Bryant, and hopes that Richard Seymour's can maintain full strength for the duration of the season could go a long way toward returning the Raiders' front four to dominance.
Mixing in 3-4 looks might prove an unwise move with the personnel the Raiders have at their disposal, or it may prove to be the type of reform that will inject freshness into Oakland's rotation and give opponents too much to prepare for. The Raiders didn't pick up any game changer on the line this offseason, but if they get Houston, Kelly, Seymour, Shaughnessy and Bryant at the top of their game, they should manage to be in contention. And if they can develop some of the longshot newcomers on the roster in time, the Raiders may have the sort of dominant line rotation they'd need to make a serious playoff run.