Raiders linebacker upgrades: ‘Like day and night’

The Raiders had a clear priority this offseason when it came to improving their perennially poor defense.

Before the new league year had even started in March, the Raiders had agreed to lucrative deals with linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski in hopes that they could finally have a duo that could contend with the modern passing game.

With those two fast players in the middle who are capable of covering tight ends and running backs, the Raiders are counting on a significant upgrade.

“It looks like day and night, truthfully,” safety Johnathan Abram said. “I mean, we’ve gotten faster on every single position on offense and defense. But the linebacker core does stick out. ... Nick Kwiatkoski came in and he’s the general. He’s calling the defense just like he’s been in it from honestly when he started it with (defensive coordinator Paul Guenther). That’s how well he knows this system. And then we got Cory Littleton, who’s basically like playing with another safety. ... It’s just a totally different core. It’s an entirely different unit. The defense just looks way faster and way better.”

The Raiders ranked last in the NFL over the past two seasons, allowing 8.0 yards per target on passes to running backs and tight ends as they lacked linebackers skilled in coverage.

So they released Tahir Whitehead in March and then signed Littleton to a $35.25 million, three-year contract to anchor the defense. The move came a day after the team agreed to a $21 million, three-year deal with Kwiatkoski.

“In this game of football we play today it’s paramount and it’s an area that we needed to address and fortunately there was some good linebackers available in free agency,” coach Jon Gruden said. “Obviously we made that a priority.”

Littleton, a former undrafted free agent who played defensive end in college, developed into a special teams standout with the Rams before becoming one of the top cover linebackers.

His 26 passes defensed are the most of any linebacker in the NFL over the past three seasons, according to SportRadar.

“As a linebacker nowadays in the NFL, they’re going to get you matched up with tight ends and running backs and those types of things,” Guenther said. “This guy can cover. He can cover ground in a very short amount of time.

Littleton will pair with Kwiatkoski. Kwiatkoski had 76 tackles, three sacks, one interception and four passes defensed last season in Chicago.

The duo is the most accomplished the Raiders have had at linebacker in years. The team has had a revolving door at the position for the past decade. The Raiders haven’t had an off-ball linebacker start at least 10 games for three straight seasons since Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard left following the 2009 campaign.

They will get a tough test in the opener on Sunday when they will match up against the NFL’s best receiving back. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey has averaged more than 100 catches per season over his three years in the NFL and topped 1,000 yards as a rusher and receiver in 2019.

Littleton believes Las Vegas has the pieces in place to handle that after the Raiders ranked in the bottom three in the league in two seasons under Guenther in points allowed, yards per play allowed and passer rating against.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of things that need to change with what’s already here,” Littleton said. “At the end of the day, to myself, it just comes down to a want-to. And me coming here, I see the same type of hunger that we had when we were in L.A. coming off of losing seasons and wanting to be better because you know that you can. Everybody is here motivated to doing just that.”

NOTES: The Raiders placed backup QB Marcus Mariota and LB Tanner Muse on IR. They both must miss at least three weeks. ... LB Kyle Wilber and T Sam Young were signed to replace them on the roster. ... QB DeShone Kizer, who spent time with the Raiders last season, was signed as the third QB behind Derek Carr and Nathan Peterman.


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