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FSM Presents: Zo Huddle – Raiders Final Evaluations – Pt. 6- Safeties

Franchise Sports Media


Part Six: We complete the Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive evaluations by scrutinizing the safeties. Only this time, the Zo Huddle has called on special reinforcements from the 559 for this breakdown…


Raiders vs Panthers
Photo Credit: Cat Crave

Much like the cornerbacks, this unit struggled immensely under a confusing and complex system ran by Paul Guenther. Reportedly, Guenther’s playbook featured up to 15 different coverages.

This Silver and Black safety unit may have had the best ball-hawk in Jeff Heath but struggled throughout the year in establishing communication and takeaway consistency.

Before we dive into the Raiders’ 2020 safeties, the Zo Huddle decided to reach out to one of the sharpest DB minds I know to assist in this breakdown of the backbone of the defense: Fred Zepeda.

Zepeda has nearly two decades of coaching experience including producing future DB’s for Texas Tech (Brandon Bagley), Oklahoma (Hatari Byrd, who transferred to Texas A&M Commerce), Cincinnati (Darren Dotson), coached Jerry “Bear” Haymon (Eastern Michigan/Sacramento State), plus coached Pittsburgh Steeler Steve Nelson at College of the Sequoias in Visalia (California) before Nelson starred at Oregon State and advanced on to the league.

Now, on to breaking down the Raiders safeties with Coach Fred:



No. of safeties who saw action: Five

Who took the most snaps: Jonathan Abram, 855 plays

Best tackler: Abram, 86 total (led the team)

Best ball-hawk: Heath, three interceptions

Best swatter: Abram, six pass deflections

Best graded safety: Heath, 72.8 rating per PFF


What Zo saw


Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

There was a good mix of confusion and overly aggressive play.

Abram is a prime example. While he proved to be a fierce box safety, his coverage skills were exposed as opposing quarterbacks often fooled him with play actions – forcing him to bite and then play catch up. According to TruMedia, Abram surrendered a completion percentage of 73.5 while surrendering 394 total yards and two touchdowns. Abram was handed a lowly 35.9 PFF grade. 

Not all was negative for Abram, though. In the Raiders’ stunning 40-32 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, Abram played a key role in bottling dynamic Tyreek Hill to just three catches for 78 yards and no touchdowns. Here’s another impact of Abram’s presence: In the three games he missed due to COVID-19 protocols, the Raiders defense gave up an average of 6.07 yards per play. With Abram on the field, that number stood at 5.99. Net yards per passing attempt also was higher without Abram (8.11) but lower with him (7.26).

Heath became the surprise ball-hawk. He wasn’t even penciled in as a starter before the 2020 season yet wound up becoming the top INT snatcher and highest-graded safety. Heath, however, made his best coverage plays when the Raiders used two high safeties. He thrives better when he’s not the single-high safety.

Erik Harris and Lamarcus Joyner were two other safeties who went from projected reserves to playing 724 and 669 snaps, respectively. While both had five pass deflections each, the two are free agents come March.


What Coach Fred saw


Raiders vs Colts
Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Zepeda drew this conclusion: These safeties were a byproduct of poor coaching and showing youth. Here’s Coach Fred’s breakdown of three Raiders safeties:

Abram: “Watching Abram, he’s the best strong safety on the roster. He is really physical, very good around the box, he sits extremely well and runs to the alley (the E gap past the tight end) very well. But what I really liked about him: He has closing speed. There’s footage of him where Tyreek Hill is running what we call a ‘Bang 8,’ which is a post route. He gets leverage on Abram, but his closing speed is so tremendously fast, that he was able to close that distance between him and Hill then get the PBU. That tells me that this guy can really move. Tyreek is probably the fastest guy in the NFL and for him (Abram) to close that gap between him and the fastest guy in the league, that tells me the guy can run.

Joyner: “From watching him, he’s actually young and raw. His upside is really big, though. I see him more in a rotation as a dime guy especially when they bring pressures. He’s athletic but a really good blitzer.

Harris: “I think his numbers can go high and his plays will go high (under Bradley). He is more of a cover guy; that deep post safety who covers the middle of the field. He has great eyes and his football mind is incredibly wide. You can tell that with his understanding of route concepts, he knows how to read routes and break them down on the snap. He eliminates different possibilities in breaking on the ball. He’s one of the best to do that in me watching a bunch of film on him. He’s extremely patient and doesn’t get into a predicament where he’s antsy or starts to panic and you can see, he trusts his feet.


Who Coach Fred believes can thrive under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley


Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: The Raider Ramble

Abram: “I think he’ll work great in that system. He’ll be more of that safety who will play closest to the box – that’s where he fits best.

“But I think a lot will depend on what they do with Karl Joseph (Cleveland Browns and former Raider). If they bring Joseph back, I think that will free up Joyner to play inside and outside. He (Joyner) is an original corner, so that means he does have cover skills. In the new defense, they’ll play more Cover 1 and Cover 3. A guy like Joyner can help them out inside because of his cover skills.”

But who could be the breakout surprise under Bradley? The Los Angeles native and former South Carolina Gamecock Keisean Nixon according to Coach Fred.

I think he can be that guy. And I say that because we know he played college football at the highest division in the SEC and he’s a prospect who is still growing. He’s a guy who can come up in Bradley’s defense because he’s more of a man guy. My only question with Keisean: Can he turn and run with the best of them? He’ll have to matchup and run with the best inside guys (wideouts like Hill, Julian Edelman, or Scotty Miller) in the league. If I’m Bradley, I see Keisean more as an inside guy and allow his cover skills he got from his CB position to translate over in the middle of the field – maybe as the third safety.


Who needs to come on board/who is likely out


Zo Huddle
Photo Credit: Raiders Wire

We believe Abram tops the list of guys who deserve another chance in Sin City and who could thrive in this new defense.

With his skills to wreck the trenches in the box, he could be a Kam Chancellor-type for Bradley’s system. But improving his coverage skills – especially when Bradley calls for Cover One or Three – is paramount for him to remain a Raider.

The toughest choice will be trying to keep either Harris or Joyner. I’m a fan of Harris’ size and he had a better 2019 than ’20 with the Raiders with his three INT’s. Joyner hasn’t had an interception since 2018 but snatched six tackles for a loss last season and is the better tackler and blitzer. Tough dilemma on Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden’s end. I honestly think the Raiders should make the attempt to keep both in this free agency period. Harris gives you a knowledgeable, patient DB while Joyner can help take the pressure off Abram as a box safety.

Even though Heath was the best ball-hawk surprise, he may not be an ideal fit for a scheme that calls for more athleticism and man coverage. He could remain as a dime linebacker or leave via free agency, as ending his two-year contract can clear up nearly $3.15 million. Plus, as Zepeda mentioned, the Raiders could get intrigued to lure back Joseph since he’s back on the free-agent market.


Post Huddle


These guys struggled under Guenther. But along with the cornerbacks, the safeties could manifest into a breakout unit in the new defense.

Who knows…Bradley’s arrival could unlock Abram’s true potential plus see an increase in interceptions inside the “Death Star.”


Next up: Part seven – we finally head to the offensive side of the football and evaluate the Raider tight ends/inside receivers.

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Lorenzo J. Reyna – Franchise Sports Media

Twitter: @LJ_Reyna


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