Raiders: Defense full of unknowns has been thrust into the limelight

Raiders (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Raiders (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The Oakland Raiders defense is full of the unheralded and the unknown, but with a playoff race in full swing, they have been thrust into the limelight.

The Oakland Raiders weren’t supposed to be good in 2019. In many ways, they were the laughing stock of the NFL heading into the season following the Antonio Brown scandal. The football world was just waiting for their eventual implosion.

Except that implosion never came.

Instead, the Raiders have surged to a 5-4 record through nine games and are right in the thick of a competitive AFC playoff race. And through 10 weeks, they sit just a half-game out of first place in the AFC West.

With a team full of unknowns and uncertainty, the Raiders have managed to exceed expectations this season and rise while the whole NFL world was waiting for them to fall.

And the story of the 2019 Oakland Raiders is perfectly personified by the current state of the team’s defense.

The Raiders defense has arguably won the team its last two games with key defensive stands down the stretch. And while the unit has certainly had its struggles, many of its players have exceeded all expectations while others didn’t even have any expectations, to begin with.

There is no Khalil Mack on this defense. Instead, there’s a Benson Mayowa. And there’s no highly-touted first-round pick in Johnathan Abram. Instead, there’s an Erik Harris.

The Raiders defense isn’t made up of superstar players or high draft picks. Rather, this is a rag-tag group of overachievers who have collectively been forced into the spotlight.

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Mayowa is a career journeyman who had 13 sacks in 72 career games entering the season. Through eight games in 2019, he leads the team with seven sacks. And for context sake, Mack has 1.5 fewer sacks despite playing an extra game.

Meanwhile, Harris is perhaps the most unheralded of all.

A former Division II standout, Harris was never supposed to be an NFL player — let alone a hero of a primetime divisional showdown as he was this past week.

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After going undrafted out of the California University of Pennsylvania, Harris failed to receive a single tryout offer from an NFL team so he took on a job at a potato chip factory.

However, he refused to give up on his football career and after paying $80 for a workout in the Canadian Football League, Harris signed on with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who he would play three seasons with.

The New Orleans Saints took notice and offered him a workout and later a contract. Unfortunately, he would play in only four games for the Saints before tearing his ACL and being released from the team.

Harris would later find his way to Oakland where he would initially serve primarily as a special-teamer. But following injuries to Johnathan Abram and now Karl Joseph and Lamarcus Joyner, Harris is front and center in a weakened Raiders secondary.

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Again, he isn’t Charles Woodson. He’s Erik Harris — and he was the star of Thursday night’s victory.

Injuries have also forced some changes at linebacker with veteran Will Compton seeing time at the position. Just a few weeks ago, Compton was sitting at home watching football on his couch.

Now, he’s seeing regular defensive snaps for an NFL team.

And the same will soon be true of both D.J. Swearinger and Dion Jordan — two more recent so-called “street pickups.” Swearinger could very well start alongside Harris this weekend while Jordan may also be active despite being signed less than a week ago.

As defensive coordinator Paul Guenther so eloquently put it, “it’s all hands on deck this week.”

A defensive lineup starring the likes of Mayowa, Harris, Compton, Swearinger, and Jordan likely isn’t what Raiders fans had in mind to start the season. But now, the unknown pieces of the unit have been thurst into the limelight.

Mayowa is beginning to gain some league-wide attention. Ditto for Harris whose two-interception performance on Thursday night earned him some well-deserved praise.

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The only question left is which unheralded player will step up and make a name for himself next?