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Pair of emerging stars give Raiders reason for optimism at linebacker

In a span of 24 hours the Las Vegas Raiders' linebacker unit went from being one of the weakest positions on the team to one of the strongest.

After initially striking out on linebacker Christian Kirksey in free agency — who signed a two-year deal with the Green Bay Packers — the Raiders honed in on two guys, Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton.

Monday morning, NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport tweeted the Raiders had closed in on a deal with Kwiatkoski. If you aren't familiar with his body of work, that's okay, because you will be soon enough. The former Chicago Bear started in eight games last season after Danny Trevathan went down with an injury. Kwiatkoski played in all 16 games and totaled three sacks, 76 tackles, one forced fumble, and four passes defensed. According to several NFL analysts, the Raiders stole this guy from the rest of the league.

"This is a high-end athlete for the linebacker position with a well-rounded game," CBS Sports analyst Chris Trapasso said. "He knows how to beat blocks on run plays, will hold his own in coverage, and play with reckless abandonment as a blitzer."

"[Kwiatkoski] was my top sleeper for free agency," SiriusXM NFL analyst Adam Caplan added. "Very athletic, smart, tough, and like Littleton can line up at a variety of positions. Those two players should play 90% of the snaps and will play nickel."

Following Monday's news, it was reported that the Raiders and Packers both had high interest in Littleton. General Manager Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden weren't about to miss out on both of their preferred targets to Green Bay.

Entering free agency, teams knew there was going to be competition for Littleton, considering he's climbed the ranks of the top linebackers in the league the last couple years. Serving as a key member of the Los Angeles Rams' dominant defensive front, Littleton totaled seven sacks, 159 tackles, 22 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and five interceptions over the last two years — goodness, that's a lot of production.

"This is the premier coverage linebacker in the NFL right now, which of course makes him incredibly valuable," Trapasso said. "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."

"Littleton is durable, smart, athletic, versatile (can play MLB or WLB in 4-3 or ILB in 3-4)," Caplan explained. "Raiders run 4-3 and he likely will be a WLB."

For nearly a decade, the Raiders have frequently targeted aging, veteran linebackers in free agency, but haven't had a young stud to manage a defense. Now, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will have two sub-27-year-olds joining his ranks. Las Vegas Raiders beat reporter Vic Tafur joked on Twitter that Guenther must have passed out from jubilation after Mayock and Gruden signed the pair of linebackers.

During a conference call with media members Tuesday, General Manager Mike Mayock shed some light on what he sees in the duo, and what the roles of Littleton and Kwiatkoski will be in 2020.

"We got guys that are both young and have a consistent amount of playing ability, and a lot of them have been starters," he said. "You talk about the linebackers, Cory Littleton covers as well as anybody in the league. We feel like Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot and fit in seamlessly with what we do."

It's taken some time for the team to address its needs on defense, but given the glaring holes from last season, fixing the issues became a priority this offseason.

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