The Oakland Raiders are looking at a maximum possibility of nine changes on defense to the starting lineup, with the only two holdovers being safety Tyvon Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston.
Second year linebacker Miles Burris could add to that list, but the odds are against that, since Oakland will feature a 4-3 base defense and have a plethora of talent at the position.
In an interesting twist to this season, the incoming talent actually feels better than the outgoing talent. A huge part of that is the talent in the secondary. The secondary was painfully atrocious last year.
That being acknowledged, let’s discuss the options in the secondary:
While a lack of talent was the primary problem, injuries compounded the problem for the Raiders in 2012. The loss of Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer at both starting corner spots forced defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to experiment with fringe players like Pat Lee, Chimdi Chekwa, Coye Francies, Brandian Ross, and Phillip Adams. Michael Huff was also moved to corner and nickleback Joselio Hanson filled in at times. In a phrase, the secondary was an unmitigated disaster.
In 2013 General Manager Reggie McKenzie — rightfully, in my opinion — cleaned house. He signed corners Tracy Porter (Denver) and Mike Jenkins (Dallas), safeties Charles Woodson (Green Bay) and Usama Young (Cleveland).
In the draft, McKenzie may have made his best move yet by selecting an outstanding cornerback out of Houston in D.J. Hayden.
The fate of the Raiders defense could actually rest on the shoulders of the rookie. If Hayden steps up and assumes the starting corner spot like he is supposed to, the defense has the potential to surprise many around the league. The reason so much relies on Hayden is because Jenkins can’t always be relied upon to cover his man.
Jenkins was repeatedly burned in Rob Ryan’s defense. He had many plays where he blew the coverage in zone, and let receivers get behind him in man schemes. Overall, Jenkins is a reliable option but he did struggle last year. Until he shows me otherwise, I will have reservations about the former Cowboy.
I opine that Tracy Porter and Hayden will win out at the corner spots, with Woodson and Branch holding down the fort at safety.
Another player I really like is Usama Young. Coming over from a stingy Cleveland Browns defense, he has good ball skills and is a very good tackler.
Tracy Porter should have a very good season barring injury. He is very good in either man coverage or zone defense. With Tarver employing a hybrid defense with many looks, such a versatile player will come in handy. Another factor that should lead to a good season for Porter is his contract situation. Porter only signed a one year deal with the Raiders and the potential of a big payday will be a good motivator.
Philip Adams showed promise towards the end of last season, but with all the talent around him, I can only see him as a backup.
Hayden has still not been signed to his rookie contract by, and the only contention seems to be the injury liability that his heart possesses. Last fall, Hayden suffered a rupture to his inferior vena cava on a freak play. He has since been cleared by doctors but did have surgery to remove scar tissue earlier this summer. Whether this plays a role in his preparation for the season or not will depend on how he handles himself and his near-fatal injury.
I predict Hayden emerges as a starter out of training camp.
The secondary is always reliant upon a good pass rush, but with emerging players like Hayden and Porter, the defensive line will have a little more time to get to the quarterback. The symbiotic relationship between the secondary and the defensive line will help the overall defense.
Those Raider fans who could stomach watching the end of last season may have noticed the emergence of a revitalized defense in the last three games.
Oakland’s defense, surprisingly, ranked in the top 10 over that period in most categories. If Tarver’s defense is as good this season with all the changes, then I’m certain the fans are in for a surprise.