There will be three training camp battles to watch after an offseason that featured significant moves for the Las Vegas Raiders. 2021 seems like an interesting year for the Silver and Black. A free agency period brought in new starters on both sides of the ball, the 2021 draft class includes players that fit the mold of the Gus Bradley scheme, and three separate trades shook up the offensive line unit.
In seven days the Las Vegas Raiders will report back to Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center for the first day of training camp. Today we will look at three training camp battles that could be the key between making the playoffs and nearly missing it for the third straight year.
It’s easy to start with the most important position on defense, the slot corner position. For the Raiders cover-3 look, it’s imperative the Raiders get this one correct. Last year, the Raiders secondary really struggled. They ranked as the 7th worst defense through the air and tied for the 5th fewest interceptions. In order to get the secondary fixed, Gus Bradley understands the importance of the slot position. During minicamp, Gus Bradley was asked about the slot corner position, and the coach quickly pointed to three players that will be in the mix to start:
“At the nickel spot you’re seeing a lot of guys rotate in there,” Bradley said last month at minicamp. “But guys like Lawson has really jumped out. I think he’s a guy that has picked up very well on it. Amik, we’ve got playing there. He’s doing a nice job on the inside. The guy that’s probably really jumped out at us is Hobbs, the kid from Illinois. Very impressed with him.”
Regardless of how you slice it, the Raiders will be at a disadvantage come Week 1. The NFL suspended Nevin Lawson, the veteran of the group and likely the front runner to start, for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He will be out both Week 1 and Week 2. That leaves Amik Robertson and Nate Hobbs as the two likely starters. Hobbs is a rookie from a small school that is going to have to adjust to the speed of the game. This will likely take a few weeks, so the Raiders could be in trouble Week 1. The other option is Robertson, a player who was great in college, but primarily on the outside. Can he have success in the slot? Robertson could answer that question pretty early in camp.
If the Raiders don’t have a plan, they will be in trouble. 2nd round pick Trevon Moehrig could play the slot, something he did a lot in 2020. In fact, Moehrig lined up in the slot on a total of 313 snaps, and as a true free safety on only 172 snaps. So if the Raiders aren’t comfortable with Robertson or Hobbs, they do have options. Other potential candidates for the slot are Damon Arnette or Casey Hayward, with the other playing the right cornerback position. Slot corner will be one of the three training camp battles to watch this summer.
Another training camp battle to watch will be at defensive tackle. When the Raiders finished the 2020 season, there was no other positional unit that disappointed more than the defensive tackles. Prior to the 2020 season, Jon Gruden called Maliek Collins the “key to the defense“. At the same time, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was supposed to have the Raider’s interior defensive line looking like a brand new unit after ranking as one of the league’s worst units in each of the two previous seasons.
In 2020, the defensive tackles not only couldn’t get after the quarterback, 5 sacks combined among the defensive tackles, but they couldn’t stop the run either, giving up the 9th most rushing yards in the league. Last week, Mike Mayock acknowledged the defense needs to get better in 2021:
“We have to get so much better [on defense]. I know it, Jon knows it. We all know it,” Mayock said on The NFL Rhodes Show. “We’ve got to finish games. I’m excited to see whether or not we can generate a pass rush because we have not been disruptive on defense, we don’t take the ball away. We don’t hurry the quarterback. We have a lot of things we have to get better at and we’re very realistic about that. More than anything, I want to see if we can be disruptive on defense and that’s going to be one of our goals.”
One thing is clear, the Raiders went all-in on the defensive side of the ball, and for good reason. But do they have enough firepower along the interior defensive line? Johnathan Hankins is probably the best defensive linemen in terms of run support. But at the same time, Hankins is very limited in the pass rush. Quinton Jefferson was also brought in to help stop the run and bring a little more than what Hankins brings in pass-rushing, but he has 10.5 career sacks in 55 games. However, it doesn’t stop with Hankins and Jefferson. Solomon Thomas, Kendal Vickers, and Darius Philon will all compete for pass-rushing snaps, and undrafted free agent Darius Stills has already caught the attention of Clelin Ferrell:
“A guy who I like a lot is Darius Stills, an undrafted rookie from West Virginia,” said Ferrell after the second OTA practice. “Real, real good dude but he got a lot of twitch. He played three-technique. He got a lot of twitch. You can just tell in the movements when we on drills and stuff like that. He got a little something to him, so I like his game a little bit.”
Stills has a shot to make the active roster, but he will have to put together an impressive camp, as he’s competing with guys like Vickers, Philon, and Thomas for the final two DT spots. Regardless of who makes the 53-man roster, the defensive tackle spot is much deeper which should allow the Raiders to rotate guys in and out, keeping everyone fresh. The training camp battle at defensive tackle is less about the individual statistics and more so of how the interior guys can come together as a unit to impact the wins and losses for the Raiders.
The center position will be the final training camp battle to watch after the Raiders surprisingly moved on from All-Pro Rodney Hudson. When the Raiders asked Hudson to take a pay cut, not only did he decline, he insisted the Raiders release him. At the same time, the Raiders felt confident enough in Andre James, the young UCLA tackle converted to center, that they decided they’ll take the risk and trade Hudson.
A few years back, James stepped in and played in two games when Hudson went down. James made some really great blocks but also had his fair share of hiccups. He snapped the ball low three times, two were fumbles that the Raiders recovered, and he was also beat a few times. Although you could write those off to a rookie changing positions, he does need to show the team that he’s improved in the year since.
Three weeks before Hudson was traded, I asked Kolton Miller about his former teammate at UCLA. We discussed James’ development and he had some really positive words:
The intriguing part of this training camp battle is the fact the Raiders brought in two other centers. Nick Martin is a veteran that has experience. He’s started in 62 career games. If Andre James doesn’t have a great camp, the Raiders could consider rolling with Martin.
At the same time, they drafted Jimmy Morrisey from Pitt in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Look, many years back, I loved what I saw from James, and Morrisey gives me James vibes. What does that mean? Both guys are quick. They get to their blocking points, and they play football using awareness, one of the traits that allowed Hudson to be the league’s best center for multiple years.
The starting center position is still Andre James’ job to lose. But if he slips up, even a little, the Raiders will quickly go with the savvy veteran who has started in many games throughout his career. The Raiders will hopefully have answers as this training camp battle plays out.
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