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FSM Presents: Zo Huddle – Raiders Final Roster Evaluations- Defensive Tackles

Franchise Sports Media

 

 

In part two of this 12-part series by FSM, the Zo Huddle will now stay in the trenches and evaluate the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive tackles. The man behind Zo Huddle Lorenzo J. Reyna draws this conclusion: The Silver and Black need trench help.

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Steven Senne/AP

Six times in the last seven games, opposing running attacks blistered the Las Vegas Raiders – accumulating past the triple-digit yardage plateau and finding more open lanes than Frank Sinatra Drive on a Saturday night.

Three times in a 16-game season, the Silver and Black witnessed rushing based-approaches top past the 200-yard mark. And the Raiders run defense got worn down the most in the middle of the unit, even with sometimes having 650-pounds of combined meat and muscle in the heart of the trenches.

This now leads into the next Zo Huddle evaluation: The defensive tackles.

Last week, I pinpointed how the Silver and Black were needy of extra pass rushers in evaluating the bookends. Defensive tackle is more complex; the Raiders can use guys who can chase quarterbacks and stuff the run in Sin City.

Time to ask the five who’s: Who was the most consistent interior trench presence, who took the most snaps, who stays, who goes and who comes in.

Here now is a closer critique of the Silver and Black’s interior options from 2020:

 

The interior linemen

 

No. of defensive tackles who saw action: Four

Who took the most snaps: Jonathan Hankins, 665 plays

Best tackler: Hankins, 48 tackles and 27 solo in 16 games

Best pass rusher: Hankins, one sack

 

Pay day coming for Hankins? Or cloudy future?

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle and eight-year NFL veteran originally signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract back in March of 2019, with $5.25 million guaranteed.

He played like someone who could be rewarded a nice new paycheck in the entertainment capital, as he was the most consistent defensive tackle in the Raiders’ four-man front.

Hankins went through the 16-game rigors and ended up leading the DT unit in all statistical categories including pouncing on one fumble against the New York Jets. With his strength and massive palms, Hankins was a hard object to move for opposing guards.

However, he and the Raiders are facing a crucial offseason period for three reasons:

One, Hankins’ contract is expiring this spring, putting him in the unrestrictive free agent category.

Two, the future of the Raiders’ defense is in a nebulous state – with the Raiders still searching for a defensive coordinator and that person, along with head coach Jon Gruden, likely helping decide who the personnel will be moving forward. Gruden vocally supports the idea of keeping a four-man front.

However, Gus Bradley, Kris Richard and Raheem Morris are the trending names as the successor to Paul Guenther – and their defenses call for speed across the front line which could nix Hankins from being a part of the scheme. Wade Phillips remains a popular pick among Raiders fans to take the defensive reins and his 3-4 scheme could benefit Hankins, due to the fact he could move to the nose tackle and draw more one-on-ones with the center.

Three, Hankins is nearing the twilight years of his career. Most DT’s when they reach the late 20’s/early 30’s age period start getting utilized less and become situational options. Hankins has greatly improved his conditioning the last two seasons and again, started all 16 games. But with the Raiders moving in a different defensive direction, the question becomes how will Hankins fit in the future of this D?

 

The rest of the guys not named Hankins

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Raiders

“He’s the key to our defense. He’s got a chance to be one of the better ones.”

Words from the mouth of Gruden when describing 2020 free agent pickup Maliek Collins.

Think of a key that gets inserted inside the lock, but that key can’t open the door and it’s clearly unfit. That was Collins.

The 6-foot-2, 308-pound Collins became the lowest graded DT in the NFL and a major disappointment among the Raiders free agency gets. He was supposed to bolster the pass rush after coming over from the Dallas Cowboys…and didn’t register one sack.

Collins started 11 games and only snatched 15 tackles in 503 plays. If you do the math, that meant Collins only successfully got tackles in 2.98% of the plays he saw action.

Maurice Hurst went from someone who made key stops for the 2019 Raiders defense to someone who didn’t take snaps in four of his 16 games. Hurst was on the field for 277 plays and only had three starts. But, the third-year pro and the Raiders’ most undersized DT on the ’20 roster at 291-pounds still got 27 tackles (14 solo) and six QB hits.

The Raiders sometimes plugged DE Kendal Vickers inside. Vickers managed to get two sacks in 15 games of action, starting in two of those contests.

Who likely stays: Hankins and Hurst

Hankins may not be the top free agent priority for the Raiders. However, as the most consistent interior presence, Las Vegas should have a nice sit-down with him and negotiate a new deal. Hurst showing brief flashes of potential in limited action should be enough to keep him through his contract – which has one more year left in the four-year deal he signed in 2018.

Who likely goes: Collins

Collins was only signed for one-year for $6 million with $5.75 million guaranteed. Because of his disappointing play, he will likely change addresses and give the Raiders cap room unless he really convinces the Raiders – or the Raiders can be convinced – that he can redeem himself.

 

Who needs to come on board

 

Again, the future of the DT position will be dependent upon who the new defensive play-caller is and how he wants to use DT’s on the fall weekends.

Last week, I stated that I’m a firm believer in improving the pass rush all around – with only 21 sacks this past season as proof.

But to reiterate, finding pass-rushing DT’s has become harder in the era of spread offenses and RPO (Run Pass Option) schemes at the college level. Most players between the defensive ends and outside linebackers on the field deal with quick strike passes to the perimeters, eliminating the chance for DT’s to get sacks. Defensive tackles manage to get their sacks when the coverage is there and the QB holds onto the ball for too long.

Yet, I found three interior standouts at the Power Five level capable of bolstering both the sacks and tackles for the Raiders.

 

Draft-able interior trenchmen for the Silver and Black

 

Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: KSL Sports

I’ll start with Jay Tufele of USC. Being a veteran college football reporter on the west coast, I got the chance to watch the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Tufele twice against Fresno State and Cal in 2019. Both games, Tufele forced the Bulldogs and Golden Bears to run more QB keeper plays away from him. He commands that type of presence.

What I love about Tufele is his lateral movement and sideline-to-sideline hustle for a guy his size. I didn’t catch him taking plays off and he helped clog lanes on plays designed to flow away from him. But his best strength is his reaction to blocking schemes. He’s one to diagnose where the guard is going (especially on pull plays) and follow his footsteps before pummeling into the ball carrier. One notable moment on Tufele’s resume: He got a sack going against Oregon behemoth and potential top three pick Penei Sewell through leverage and a bull rush.

Tufele, though, has his cons…notably consistency in his leverage (he often relied on his upper body strength to win battles), relying on an inside swim move as his primary hand technique option and this potential concern: Rust.

Tufele was among the key Trojans players who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns and chose to enter his name into the 2021 NFL Draft. But that now means his last game was in 2019. It’ll be interesting to see how much in shape Tufele kept himself in during these unprecedented times. In the end, his big man athleticism and run destroying ability makes him an intriguing draft option for Las Vegas. I can see him falling between the late second round to early fourth round.

Another guy I’ve become high on is Jerome Johnson of Indiana. Like Tufele, he possesses near similar athletic traits for someone bringing 304-pounds to a 100-yard field. But what I admire about Johnson: He can make hustle plays. Watch the interception he had against Ohio State this past season as proof.

Also, he’s quick and twitchy in the middle of the Hoosiers’ defense. He’s able to freeze up guards with his snap explosion then blow past them with hands and foot quickness. He may not have the equal strength and lateral movement as Tufele, but Johnson is battle-tested with 40 games in an IU uniform.

Another personal career moment he had in the Ohio State game: Sacking potential No. 2 overall pick Justin Fields.

 

Sleeper alert from Morgantown

 

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Photo Credit: WVU Athletics

Lastly, Darius Stills of West Virginia rounds out the trio of potential incoming Raiders DT’s. Stills mostly lined up as a DE in the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 look, but he’s projected to play inside despite being undersized at 6-foot-1, 284-pounds.

Stills has one of the more rapid fire get-offs after the snap, putting opposing linemen in the uncomfortable position of dealing with his foot quickness and fiery motor. One advantage he does possess with his size is his pad level – Stills can still get low enough to drive blockers back or force them to readjust their blocking approach. He’s a one-gap disruptor who is capable of excelling in a four-man front that calls for speed in all four spots.

Here’s what I found astonishing about Stills: In a conference featuring no-huddle offenses and lack of stout defensive play, Stills managed to collect 9.5 sacks in his last 21 games going against the Big 12 slate, meaning approximately 45% of those games saw him tussling down the signal-caller. NFL Draft prospect Sam Ehlinger of Texas was among the QB’s who dealt with Stills bringing him down to the turf. He did his best work against Baylor; swallowing ball carriers with seven stops behind the line of scrimmage and netting 5.5 sacks in the last two games against the Bears.

 

Post huddle

 

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Photo Credit: Twitter

It’s going to be an interesting offseason with what happens here.

The Raiders will either resign their best interior trench man or let him walk via free agency. Then you have got to factor in who will run the defense inside the “Death Star” and what the plan is for the defensive tackles.

Either way, the Raiders can’t have a repeat of the New England, New York Jets or Indianapolis game when all three breezed past the 200-yard mark through its ground game.

Pass rushers are a necessity on the edge. Guys who can chase QB’s and stop the run are a must for the guys lined up on the opposing guards and centers. Safe to say, the Raiders will likely use a majority of the 2021 Draft bolstering their defense. It starts with the guys up front.

 

Next week in Zo Huddle: We gravitate to the linebackers starting first with the outside ‘backers.

 

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Lorenzo J. Reyna – Franchise Sports Media

Twitter: @LJ_Reyna

 

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