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HENDERSON, Nev. – When Matthew Butler’s cell phone came alive in the fifth round of the NFL Draft last month, the former Tennessee defensive lineman did not recognize the number on the screen.
“It just showed ‘Las Vegas, Nevada,'” Butler said. “So my heart stopped a little.”
In fact, when it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders and defensive linemen, the 702 area number has gotten a lot of work done this offseason. In addition to drafting Butler with overall pick No. 175, the Raiders also selected LSU’s Neil Farrell Jr. a round earlier. Las Vegas then signed a couple of exhausted defensive linemen for rookie in Notre Dame’s Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Iowa’s Zach VanValkenburg, both of whom are listed as ends.
This after signing a bunch of veteran-defensive tackles in free agency – from Bilal Nichols to Kyle Peko to Vernon Butler to PJ Johnson to Tashawn Bower to Andrew Billings – while re-signing Johnathan Hankins and retaining Kendal Vickers.
Oh yes, and the Raiders swapped defensive end-rusher Yannick Ngakoue away and signed edge-rusher Chandler Jones to pair with Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby.
The Raiders’ new regime mixed its D-line tires about … and so little.
“We did not have many [defensive linemen] on the list to start with, “said Raiders coach Josh McDaniels.” There were many opportunities in that position. “
To be fair, McDaniels spoke specifically about the two inside defensive line positions. To be more general, where the Raiders value versatility in all of their players, they will show a number of new fronts under the new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
At 4-3 base, as it has been the Raiders’ appearance for a decade plus? Safe.
How about a 3-4 that is more reminiscent of Graham’s sensitivity? As McDaniels has said since he was hired in January, a base defense is basically a nickel now. So you need interchangeable pieces, and the more positions you can play, the more playing time that player gets.
Therefore, you should not read too much into the fact that Jones is listed as a linebacker on the team’s transaction side, or Farrell as a defensive lineman or Tagovailoa, who is trending as a classic “tweener”, as a conclusion.
“During my career at LSU,” Farrell said, “I played defensive end. I played defensive tackle. I played nose guard. So whatever the team needs, I’m willing to do.
Remember, Clelin Ferrell, number 4 in the 2020 draft, is still on the list and might be better translated as a finish in a 3-4 schedule. Like Malcolm Koonce, who was drafted in the third round last year, had two sacks in his first two games as a defensive end, but also began to see experienced reps at the outside linebacker late in the season.
Plus, AFC West is filled with quarterbacks, with Russell Wilson joining the Denver Broncos to add Patrick Mahomes with the Kansas City Chiefs and Justin Herbert with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Then there is this: The Raiders have ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in scoring defense for 19 straight seasons, the longest streak of such teams since 1970, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
No wonder Las Vegas has gone so heavy on the D-line this offseason.
In Farrell, the Raiders got a 6-foot-4, 319-pound fifth-year senior who had 45 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, with two sacks for LSU last fall. Pro Football Focus had it twice as SEC Academic Honor Roll member number four in FBS with 24 running stops, 10 of which were either no wins or losses.
Butler, at 6-4, 295 pounds, was also a fifth-year senior who flourished last season. He played an SEC-high 726 snaps and led the Tennessee defensive linemen in tackles (47), while finishing fourth in tackles for losses (8.5) and third in sacks (5) with seven QB rushes and a forced fumble. PFF had him in the top 10 of SEC D linemen in urgent defense.
The 6-2, 270-pound Tagovailoa-Amosa, who played five years at Notre Dame (sense a trend yet?) And was a team captain, had two kicks last season, while the 6-4, 263-pound VanValkenburg played three years at Iowa after transfer from Division II Hillsdale. He had five sacks as a senior.
As McDaniels put it, the Raiders have taken “a few swings” on the defensive this offseason, from free agency through the draft and UDFA signings.
“Like I said, we’ll need some depth there in camp anyway,” McDaniels said. “We want to improve competition at every position we can, and I think we’ve put in a team that will do that now.”