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Raiders Mailbag: Defense still shaping up coming out of minicamp

Larry Warner asks:

Is John Abram going to ball out this year since he's in position to do what he does best?

Johnathan Abram may have the most pressure of any player in the Raiders secondary.

The Raiders drafted Abram out of Mississippi State with high hopes, as one of their first-round picks in 2019. Abram tore his labrum his first NFL regular-season game and didn't have an in-person offseason his second year. While Abram led the Raiders in total tackles his sophomore season, there's a lot of room to still grow for the young safety. While Abram showed intensity and tenacity this past season, he was honest about playing too aggressive at times.

As the season progressed, Abram was used in the box at the strong safety position and began stuffing the run and creating pressure on the quarterback on a regular basis. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley took note of that and plans to use Abram in more of that capacity this upcoming season.

"I'm pretty much going down to what they call a box safety, strong safety," said Abram during OTAs. "It's interesting going from what we went to last year, playing a lot of split safety, playing high. This, I feel like, is going to be more suitable to my talents and my strengths. I look forward to this year and getting ready come for each day."

Of course, any first-round pick has high expectations coming into the league, but Abram has shown glimpses of his full potential to be a great safety in this league. Him making the leap his third season is not only imperative for the Raiders defense, but for his career as well.

Stephen Ness asks:

I wonder what our starting secondary will look like and how much better they will be this year under Bradley?

The starting secondary is still very tentative, but the expectation is Trayvon Mullen will stay locked in as a starter.

Mullen is coming off a solid season of being the secondary's clear consistent performer, playing and starting all 16 games. While he did have a few growing pains in his second season, he led the team in pass deflections (14) and was tied for second on team in interceptions (2) with Abram. Mullen has also looked more polished and aggressive throughout OTAs and minicamp and is looking to establish himself as an elite cornerback in the NFL this season.

"I feel like I'm better than ever," said Mullen during OTAs. "I trained hard this offseason. I'm still going hard, learning this new system, helping the young guys. Being around the young guys is helping me get even better. Being accountable of a lot of things. Trying to be that leader for the younger guys, so I can be good for myself and as a team, for my teammates, but I feel like I'm better than ever."

Veteran cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. has also been impressed with what he's seen from Mullen so far. The two-time Pro Bowler knows what it takes to succeed in this league and feels that Mullen has those same intangibles.

"I think Mullen took a big step last year, and I know going into Year 3 he's going to take another step," said Hayward Jr. "I know he wants to be that Pro Bowl, All-Pro type player."

Mullen additionally had high praise for two rookie defensive backs who are poised to be factors in the Raiders defense at slot cornerback and free safety. Nate Hobbs and Tre'von Moehrig have received compliments from several players and coaches and are in prime position to quickly make their mark.

"I feel like he's going to be really talented," Mullen said about Hobbs. "He practices hard, he goes through his drills really well. I like the way he approaches practice. I feel like he's going to be a real good player for us as long as he just keeps his mentality up and keeps going hard every day."

"Tre' [Tre'von Moehrig] is doing very well. Happy for him and I'm excited to see how he's going to transition to this system. And the way he's approaching every day, it's like he's ready and prepared."

William Wallace asks:

Are we going to be able to get pressure on the QB with just the front four?

Let's be honest: 2020 was not a great year for the Raiders defensive line.

The Raiders were ranked 23rd in quarterback hits, 26th in sacks and 29th in sack percentage last season. The Silver and Black have had historically low pass rushing defenses the past three seasons, but have taken this offseason to try to halt the problem. The Raiders started by signing Quinton Jefferson and Yannick Ngakoue (who were not only teammates at Maryland but share the same birthday).

"That's like a brother to me," Ngakoue said about Jefferson during minicamp. "We have the same exact birthday, got drafted with each other, and he's going to bring a lot of tenacity to this defense. He's slept on; he's under the radar. I feel like he's really going to show a lot of flashes. He looks way different from when we were playing in college together. His body has changed tremendously. I'm excited to see what he's about to do."

Jefferson is an evolving pass-rushing interior lineman who's had success with the Seahawks and Bills with 16 quarterback hits his past two seasons. Ngakoue is a powerhouse edge rusher who has had four consecutive eight-sack seasons. Pairing him with Maxx Crosby immediately puts them in contention to be "the best duo that's going to come hit the scene" according to Ngakoue. The two defensive lineman have a combined 33 sacks over the past two seasons.

With the signings of former first-round pick Solomon Thomas, Darius Philon and drafting edge rusher Malcolm Koonce out of Buffalo, the Raiders come into this season with the most depth on the defensive line they've had in a long time. Also can't forget to mention Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Hankins, who began coming into their own last season and provide great leadership and strength to the unit. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley wants to use this depth to the Raiders advantage and have fresh pass rushers on the field at all times getting after the quarterback.

"Just think — you get two D-line groups that can really rush and they're all playing," said Coach Bradley. "I mean that is just great for morale, first of all. Everybody knows we are going to be playing 30-35 reps. Everybody is getting in there at critical times. I think I've learned that through the years that it's so critical, especially to that group up front. Obviously, we know guys and we'd like to build it to, 'Hey, this is a critical time. Who's in the game? Well, whoever is hot. And whoever is fresh.' And if we can get to that mentality where it's by numbers, I think that's very, very important.

"But you got guys that are very skilled, guys like Yannick, Maxx Crosby. Those guys have proven that they are very, very good rushers in this league, and so to keep them fresh in critical times to have them out our services would be great."

So to answer your question, William, yes I think just the front four will be just fine getting pressure on the quarterback. Or at least much better than they have in years past.

View photos of veterans, free-agent additions, and rookies as they suit up in the Silver and Black for the first time this season during the Raiders 2021 Media Day.

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