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Raiders Mailbag: What does it take for a defense to go from good to great?

Scott Sanford from Oregon asked:

"Do you think Aidan O'Connell will be given a fair shot at starting? I honestly believe if he were coached up regarding pocket awareness and moving his feet to buy time, he'd be a solid QB1."

Everything points to Aidan O'Connell receiving more than a fair shot.

There's no doubt there's competition for the job with Gardner Minshew II signing with team this offseason, as well as Anthony Brown Jr. and Carter Bradley in the mix. Both O'Connell and Minshew started last season as the backup quarterbacks for their respective teams before being called into action to deliver. In 11 starts, O'Connell threw for 2,218 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2023 while the former Indianapolis Colts quarterback threw for 3,305 yards and 15 touchdowns in 13 starts – including a 23-20 win over the Raiders in Week 17.

"Aidan has already kind of taken the bull by the horns and he's leading the way and Minshew's right there doing it as well," Antonio Pierce said earlier this offseason. "That's two guys that have played. You saw them play against each other last year and they went neck to neck. But I'm really excited to see what happens. I think it's going to be a process. We're going stick to the process. But as I said before, Aidan's earned the right to go out there and get the first snap."

Both quarterbacks have looked impressive in early OTAs, but in different aspects of the game. O'Connell has showcased his arm strength and pinpoint accuracy, while Minshew has seemingly had the edge in the pocket awareness and mobility Mr. Sanford originally mentioned in his question. So in short, this battle will continue to make for a competitive offseason on Raiders Way.

Andy Beazley from Faversham, England, asked:

"The Raiders picked two defensive backs in the seventh round, M.J. Devonshire & Trey Taylor. Which of the two do you think has the best chance to stick at either DB or on Special Teams?"

Right now, both M.J. Devonshire and Trey Taylor are on the same playing field as rookies trying to make the roster.

The defensive backs were the last two draft picks in the 2024 Draft for the Raiders, but both are accomplished in their own right. Devonshire made more of an impact on special teams at the University of Pittsburgh, being named Second-Team All-ACC return specialist in 2022. He also racked up three interceptions returned for touchdowns with the Panthers.

"I take a lot of pride in just being able to do things. Versatility is a big thing growing up where I'm from," said Devonshire. "Just being able to do things with the ball in your hands. It's not only playing corner on the outside, it's shutting guys down. You've got to be able to do something when the opportunity presents itself. So, it's a big thing to be able to be versatile and help the team win in any way possible."

Taylor was a standout safety at Air Force, winning the 2023 Jim Thorpe Award that is given to the best defensive back in the nation. The All-American also won the Pat Tillman Award in the 2024 East-West Shrine Bowl for exemplifying character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service.

"Trey was very impressive when we brought him in on a 30 visit, very mature. You can see why he was successful in college," Pierce said during rookie minicamp. "I think he has a great opportunity to help us, especially in the kicking game. But when you look at him physically, he's a specimen. He's a good-looking prospect. It's good to get him in the building, glad to have him here. Great smile, good personality. A really good fit for us."

Angel Hernandez from Florida asked:

"What are the chances you might take a look at Xavien Howard?"

As I mentioned in last week's Mailbag, the Raiders could potentially add another veteran defensive back to the roster, with Xavien Howard being a name in mind.

The chances of adding Howard are a bit hard to guess at the moment, but the signing would make sense. The former Miami Dolphins cornerback was teammates with several defensive players that have moved to the desert, including John Jenkins, Adam Butler and Christian Wilkins. It's also worth nothing that Patrick Graham was Howard's defensive coordinator at Miami during the 2019 season.

And while the Raiders secondary has shown glimpses of promise, it's still a relatively young unit. The four-time Pro Bowler with eight seasons under his belt could easily step in and be a leader not just for the secondary, but among the entire defense.

Peter Sebastian from California asked:

"The Raiders defense became very good last year. What does it take to go from very good to great, like 2000 Ravens great?"

It's funny you mention the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, Peter. Marvin Lewis, the Raiders assistant head coach, was the defensive coordinator of that Super Bowl-winning team.

The Las Vegas Raiders, in fact, produced a good defense in 2023. Following the mid-season coaching change in Week 9, the defense allowed only 16 points and less than 230 passing yards per game. It also produced 14 turnovers in that span, which was more than what it produced the entirety of the prior season. The defense is in place to get even better with the addition of Wilkins and the continuous growth of Malcolm Koonce, Jack Jones and Nate Hobbs among others.

As for how the Raiders defense can go from good to great, Patrick Graham gave his answer.

"Put in the work," the Raiders defensive coordinator said. "Put in the work, keep extending the goal a little bit each day. I know all the guys talk about one percent each day, that's what we've got to do. Just put in the work, keep pushing that line forward a little bit more, and we'll see how the chips fall. But that's the most important thing, and thankfully, we have a bunch of guys on the team who are high achievers. I like to think of myself as someone that wants to achieve high goals, and we set those goals, and we do what we've got to do to try to accomplish them."

The Raiders hit the practice field at Intermountain Health Performance Center for day three of OTAs.

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