The Raiders have been searching for consistent linebacker play for what feels like a decade, but it seems like General Manager Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden have done their best this offseason to remedy the area of need.
Linebackers have evolved through the years, becoming lighter, faster, and more agile to cover everything from sideline to sideline, but finding players that fit this mold has become challenging. In free agency, the Raiders sought out the modern-day linebacker, signing Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski — both players were regarded by NFL analysts as the two most-coveted linebackers in free agency.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has seen vast improvement to his group this offseason and he must be sitting in his office smiling from ear to ear watching tape; let's break down his unit's newest playmakers and more.
Previous Position Battles:
There's a good chance the Raiders feature an entirely new starting linebacking group this season, assuming Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Tanner Muse stay healthy through training camp. The Silver and Black have three returning players at a position where communication and familiarity are essential, so the question is: How quickly will Littleton, Kwiatkoski and Co., grasp Guenther's system?
Littleton and Kwiatkoski have each operated in highly productive defenses the last few years, Littleton as a member of the Los Angeles Rams and Kwiatkoski as a member of the revamped Chicago Bears defense. Since 2018, Littleton has started every game, registered at least 125-plus tackles in each of the last two seasons, and totaled seven-and-a-half sacks — Raiders' linebackers have one sack in the last two years — while becoming a Pro Bowler in the process.
"This is the premier coverage linebacker in the NFL right now, which of course makes him incredibly valuable," CBS Sports analyst Chris Trapasso told raiders.com in April. "He won't wow as a run-defender because he's on the smaller side, but has the motor and range to get to outside run plays. Littleton is on the verge of being a superstar and only turns 27 in November."
The expectation is that Littleton will play WLB and Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot for Guenther's defense. If you haven't heard of Kwiatkoski, you'll be plenty familiar with him soon. The 27-year-old has flown under the radar for the last couple of years, but he earned more recognition last season after receiving more playing time.
Over 16 games and eight starts, Kwiatkoski hauled in an interception, swatted four passes, forced one fumble, sacked opposing quarterbacks three times, and totaled 76 tackles. SiriusXM NFL analyst Adam Caplan had him as his top sleeper in the 2020 free agency class.
"[Kwiatkoski] was my top sleeper for free agency," Caplan said. "Very athletic, smart, tough, and like Littleton can line up at a variety of positions. Those two players should play 90% of the snaps."
The Raiders will lean on Littleton and Kwiatkoski heavily at linebacker this season, but don't forget about two guys who are experienced with Guenther's terminology, Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow. Both players are entering their fourth season in the NFL and Morrow has lasted much longer than people anticipated. As an undrafted free agent out of Greenville University, Morrow has played every game in the last three years and made 18 appearances as a starter (eight in 2019). Expect to see plenty of Lee and Morrow in the mix as well in 2020, but they'll be competing with rookie Tanner Muse.
Surprise, surprise, the Raiders added another Clemson Tiger in the draft this year, selecting Muse in the third round (No. 100 overall). Muse is an interesting player because he joins the Raiders as a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker, but Mayock said following the draft he'd start at linebacker. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Muse has the size to play in the middle of the field and is gifted with versatility, and I expect the Raiders to take advantage of that.
Making a prediction for this group is hard because I believe it will improve in every category, but I think tight ends will have a harder time succeeding over the middle of the field with the Raiders' newest additions roaming free, which has been a challenge for the Silver and Black in recent memory. The coverage overall will be tighter and there will be added pressure in the pass rush, which has been lacking. I predict the Raiders' reconstructed linebacking corps will be the biggest difference-maker on defense in 2020.
View photos of the Las Vegas Raiders linebackers heading into 2020 Training Camp. Free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski lead the revamped linebacking corps into 2020 with draft pick Tanner Muse looking to make an impact.