Raiders vs Saints
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FSM Presents: Zo Huddle – Raiders Final Evaluations – Outside Linebackers

Franchise Sports Media

 

In part three of this 12-part series, Zo Huddle officially moves out of the defensive trenches and into the OLB unit. And now has two major questions to ask…

 

The Raiders Realist
Photo Credit: K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

What impact is new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley going to have on the linebacking core, since this is his area of expertise?

And, with an LB guy running the defense, do the Raiders spend their first draft choice on an outside ‘backer?

In two previous coaching stops, the 54-year-old Bradley oversaw the LB units at Fort Lewis College (Colorado) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, he is heading to Sin City to resuscitate an entire defensive unit that lacked a pass rush, showed an inability to force takeaways and surrendered 30 or more points in 10 regular season games this past season.

In looking back at the 25th ranked defense of the league, was the OLB spot a bright spot or a blemish? Time to critique the Silver and Black OLB’s:

 

The Outside ‘Backers

 

No. of OLB’s who saw action: Four

Who took the most snaps: Cory Littleton, 847

Best tackler: Littleton, 79 total

Best pass rusher: Nicholas Morrow, three

 

Was Littleton worth the $35 mil?

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Raiders Wire

Littleton was given $35.2 million to bolster the Raiders’ three-man LB squad. He was considered a prized defensive free agent pickup to elevate the Paul Guenther-led defense.

He underwhelmed instead…producing zero sacks, no pass deflections and snatching 79 tackles – but not tipping past the double-digit tackles mark in every game he played.

Early on, there were games when Littleton looked perplexed on which gap alignment he had to account for, resulting in him getting hooked by opposing blockers and taken away from the play. He was additionally beaten too often on passing plays – with 70.8% of throws being completed with him targeted according to Pro Football Focus. Lastly, per PFF, Littleton missed 17.2% of his tackles.

Does this mean the former Los Angeles Rams won’t finish out the three-year deal he originally signed with the Silver and Black? Lucky for Littleton, he sounds like he’s got a vote of confidence from his head coach Jon Gruden.

“We really like him. I think the greatness in Littleton has yet to be seen as a Raider,” Gruden told reporters on Jan. 5. “I think he’s got an every-down linebacking skillset. I think he can be a leader of our defense. I think he can be a centerpiece here.”

At 6-foot-3, 228-pounds, Littleton looks more like an oversized safety. But to add to his potential luck in 2021, Bradley has worked well with LB’s who didn’t look the prototypical part before…a la Derrick Brooks in Tampa Bay during the twilight years of his career (made the Pro Bowl in ’06 and ’08 when Bradley was the LB coach). Bobby Wagner (6-foot, 242-pounds) of Seattle and Kenneth Murray (another 6-foot-3 LB) of the L.A Chargers are other former Bradley pupils who thrived in his scheme.

 

Did Littleton get help?

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Raiders

Nicholas Morrow provided an extra set of hands on the outside and wound up receiving 722 snap counts – culminating in 76 tackles for third on the Raiders. His three sacks ended as the best among the Raider ‘backers.

But here is this odd stat involving the 6-foot, 225-pound Morrow: The Raiders were 1-4 in games when he reached eight tackles or 10…and the one victory came in the season finale against Denver.

Given his stature, Morrow – who played both the weakside and strongside areas – is better suited at weakside linebacker. He also signed a one-year deal last off-season, so there is no telling how high of a priority he’ll be on the Raiders’ personal resigning list.

Kyle Wilber played in 44 snaps this past season and pounced on one fumble recovery. But he only registered four total tackles in 16 games. Like Morrow, Wilber was on a one-year deal.

Who likely stays: Littleton

When the head coach is in your corner and not ripping you in front of reporters for subpar play, that should be the indicator light that you’ll be granted another year with the Silver and Black and give Bradley’s scheme a try.

Who likely goes: Morrow and Wilber

Again, these guys signed a solo season deal. Wilber will be 32 next fall while Morrow may have the best chance of staying – but the Raiders will likely make defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins a high free agent option plus utilize the April draft to bolster the defense. That could mean little to no room for Morrow to return to Sin City.

 

Who needs to come on board

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Slap the Sign

The Raiders face a big decision this March.

Do they hit the free agent market and lure in a veteran OLB like Von Miller, Melvin Ingram (who played for Bradley in L.A), Shaquil Barrett, etc.? Or do they stick to the draft?

I’m still a firm believer the Raiders need to bolster the trenches and reignite the pass rush – hence why I feel the first two or three picks need to be on defensive linemen with a past history of getting to the quarterback. The latest ’21 mock drafts now puts one of the top DE’s in the 2021 class Kwity Paye of Michigan going to Las Vegas. I’m on board with his selection if he falls out of the top 15.

Although if the Raiders choose to draft an OLB, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Norte Dame is the first name that sprouts up. He is an explosive player who moves like a free safety and crashes into people like a throwback middle linebacker. Owusu-Koramoah’s hand strength/extension, eyes in locating the football and closing speed are major field strengths.

However, he’s got a thin OLB build at 6-foot-1, 215-pounds. His last game was a relatively quiet and subpar performance against the National Champs Alabama. In fact, on the first TD of the 2020-21 Rose Bowl played in Arlington (Tex.) Owusu-Koramoah saw Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith score on his side of the field and appeared to have given up on the play. Sure, he has the stature and speed to be a prime fit for Bradley’s defense, but his frame is worrisome.

If the Raiders bypass the Norte Dame ‘backer, Azeez Ojulari of Georgia could be worth a mid-round pickup. His much larger frame at 6-foot-3, 240-pounds makes him appealing, but his history of charging the quarterback can potentially help a Silver and Black pass rush that managed just 21 sacks. His length, hip flexibility and upfield burst gave opposing tackles fits.

The knock on Ojulari is he doesn’t appear to be the strongest at the point of attack and had trouble with the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) best blindside tackles. Some also believe that Ojulari should’ve returned to Athens to fine tune his ability to take on blockers. But again, he could be an OLB edge rush option for Las Vegas.

My sleeper is Hamilcar Rashed Jr. of Oregon State. The 6-foot-4, 236-pounder gave Pac-12 tackles hell in 2019 – culminating in 14 sacks through 12 games, including five that saw him snatch the QB 2-3 times.

He had a down year in 2020 with zero sacks in the truncated season, but mostly because teams either finally doubled him or ran plays away from his side. Rashed, though, is a hustle player and explosive gap shooter. Rashed is more damaging when he’s single blocked as his hands and burst gets him past the line of scrimmage. When he beats his block, forget chasing him from behind. He’s quick and disruptive enough to end plays in a loss of yards.

While he played in a 3-4 look in Corvallis, he would need bulk to be a hybrid DE/OLB and looks better suited in a 4-3. He could be a solid fifth or seventh round option for L.V.

 

Post Huddle

 

Now that the Raiders got their defensive coordinator, the overhaul begins with adding new blood thirsty defenders.

It all starts with the front seven.

I’m still a firm believer in rebuilding the trenches especially through the draft. But it’ll be hard for the Raiders to say no to bringing in one of these guys who terrorized the Silver and Black for many years: Miller or Ingram.

Getting one or the other will be beneficial for Littleton and whomever the Raiders draft at OLB.

 

Next week: The Zo Huddle scrutinizes the inside linebackers and asks how will Bradley’s defense benefit the ILB’s in Vegas?

Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle         Zo Huddle           

Lorenzo J. Reyna – Franchise Sports Media

Twitter: @LJ_Reyna

 

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