Jeff Roberson / AP
Thursday, May 18, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The first of the NFL’s three allotted periods for voluntary offseason team workouts begins May 22 for the Las Vegas Raiders ahead of their mandatory minicamp from June 6-8.
Many downplay the significance of this stretch of spring practices, considering it nothing more than a chance for players to learn terminology and work with new teammates for the first time. But, coming off a 6-11 season under new coach Josh McDaniels, the Raiders need to milk every available practice minute.
They’ve got many areas of concern and needs for growth, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Despite being maddeningly inconsistent a year ago, Las Vegas hovered around league-average or slightly above on offense. Defense was a different story, however; on that side of the football, the Raiders were near the bottom of the league by any measure.
The path to fixing it starts now. Here are five things the team can work on immediately, leading into the official start of training camp in late July.
1. Get top draft pick Tyree Wilson up to speed
The Raiders had an anemic pass rush a year ago, needing a late-season rally to raise from dead last in the league to 30th among 32 teams with 29 total sacks and a 4.38% sack rate. Wilson, the No. 7 overall pick in last month’s NFL Draft out of Texas Tech, represents their biggest hope for creating more pressure.
Problem is, the 6-foot-6, 276-pound edge rusher is relatively raw at a position that traditionally has a rather steep learning curve for players moving to the professional level. Every rookie progresses differently, but the Raiders can’t afford for Wilson’s development to move too slowly. They need to push him to ensure that he’s ready for the start of training camp this summer.
“College and NFL are whole different levels, so I want to improve my technique going against other great offensive tackles and offensive linemen, and locking people out with the long arms that God gave me,” Wilson said in a news conference after he was drafted.
2. Foster competition at defensive tackle
Las Vegas had superstar Maxx Crosby getting consistent pressure on the outside last season, but the team had no one who could do the same on the inside. Former Los Angeles Chargers first-round pick Jerry Tillery gave the Raiders a minor spark when Las Vegas claimed him off waivers late in the season, but his rush defense left much to be desired.
Tillery and Bilal Nichols, who was decent while starting every game but similarly inconsistent, are both back, but the Raiders should open up the starting jobs to whomever can seize them. They should have plenty of options at the position, considering they signed three veteran free agents (longtime New Orleans Saint John Jenkins, former New England Patriot Adam Butler and former San Francisco 49er Jordan Willis), drafted two rookies (Byron Young from Alabama in the third round and Nesta Jade Silvera out of Arizona State in the seventh round) and return two second-year players from the 2022 draft (Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler).
3. Allow Robert Spillane to assert his influence
Las Vegas wooed middle linebacker Robert Spillane, who broke out late last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, to the desert in free agency by promising him an opportunity to become the leader and proverbial quarterback of the defense.
That doesn’t happen overnight. The rest of the defense’s players will need to get used to Spillane’s calls—he’s expected to be the Raiders’ designated defensive player with the radio in his helmet to communicate with coaches—and style. It should help that he’s already gotten a cosign from Crosby, an old college rival at Eastern Michigan when Spillane played at Western Michigan, but it’s up to Spillane to sync up with everyone else.
“Especially in this business, guys aren’t going to follow you if they sense you’re fake,” Spillane said in a news conference after his signing. “Guys have a really good radar for who’s being real, and you can’t fake the work. I pour my heart and soul into this game.”
4. Figure out the logjam at cornerback
Not unlike their situation along the defensive line, the Raiders are high on bodies in the defensive backfield but low on surefire game-changers.
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham usually has three cornerbacks on the field, and solid third-year veteran Nate Hobbs is the only player who can be penciled in to one of the spots. The remaining question is whether the Raiders play Hobbs more predominantly in the slot, where he has found the most success, or on the outside, traditionally where the top cornerbacks line up.
Competition for the snaps next to Hobbs should be fierce. Las Vegas signed several low-priced free agents including David Long from the Los Angeles Rams, Duke Shelley from the Minnesota Vikings and Brandon Facyson from the Indianapolis Colts. They also drafted Jakorian Bennett out of Maryland in the fourth round and bring back a trio of depth contributors from last year in Amik Robertson, Tyler Hall and Sam Webb.
At least a couple of those guys aren’t going to make the final roster and need to make use of every chance to differentiate themselves.
5. Run the tip drill repeatedly
The Raiders ranked last in the NFL with 13 takeaways last season, which didn’t sit well with McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler. All offseason, they have discussed bringing in more playmakers on defense.
They lived up to their word, considering the two defensive backs they took in the draft—Bennett and safety Christopher Smith out of Georgia in the fifth round—are scouted to have exceptional ball skills. But the Raiders need to make sure everyone on the roster is ready to make more plays on the ball, whether in forcing and recovering fumbles or picking off passes.
The latter is more of a skill that can be refined and practiced, though luck plays a role in both. A classic football drill emphasizing catching loose balls obviously isn’t going to change everything, but it’s a start in instilling what McDaniels hopes can become part of his team’s defensive philosophy.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.