With every word that an NFL coach utters these days, it would be naive not to think there is a calculation factor to almost everything they say, especially when offering unsolicited insight into a specific player.
So it was worth noting that Raiders head coach Jon Gruden singled out UNLV rookie Javin White on Thursday when assessing the Raiders’ linebacker situation.
The rebuilt unit added two prominent veterans in free agency last March, and both Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski bring experience, proven production and much-needed pass coverage ability as three-down players.
But there is an open position alongside them at weakside linebacker, and with no clear-cut favorite to claim the job, Gruden and his defensive staff will spend the next three weeks assessing a handful of candidates before declaring a winner.
That group of hopefuls shrank by two this week when Marquel Lee was released after failing his physical and Ukeme Eligwe opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19. The Raiders added former Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Bryce Hager on Friday. But the four-year veteran is more of a depth player who can add special teams expertise and experience rather than a starting candidate.
Among the veterans who survived the Raiders’ linebacker purge this offseason, Nicholas Morrow and Kyle Wilber will get long looks over the next month or so. Morrow has starter experience, although he’s been a liability in pass coverage. Of Wilbur’s 370 total snaps last year, only 66 were non-special teams plays. Justin Phillips returns after a four-game stint with the Raiders last year, but he projects more as a strongside linebacker.
Tanner Muse, the third-round pick out of Clemson last April, is also under consideration.
For now, the Raiders appear open-minded about who will get the job and will take their time declaring a winner. Given the frequency with which they line up in their base 4-3 defense — and with matchup football so prevalent these days that percentage keeps dwindling — the Raiders could form a multiple-player committee in which specific skill sets get tapped into depending on the situation.
Which brings us back to White, the undrafted free agent who finally got a chance to get on the field this week and catch the eye of Gruden, albeit in walk-through settings sans helmets and pads and actually hitting.
Nevertheless, White flashed speed and athletic ability and the consistent element of being where he was supposed to be and carrying out his responsibilities. All of which prompted a tip of the cap from Gruden during a chat with the media this week.
“There’s a young kid out of Las Vegas, Nevada, a young undrafted free agent, Javin White, who is doing some good things as well,” Gruden offered upon being asked about the additions of Littleton and Kwiatkoski.
Gruden pointed out Muse immediately after praising White, a clear indication that both rookies are making their presence felt. That is not insignificant considering neither had the luxury of a traditional offseason to get acclimated to the NFL, let alone the Raiders’ way of doing things.
It is important to point out that the Raiders are still in the strength and conditioning phase of the COVID-19 impacted training camp, which allows them just an hour or so of football- related walk-through sessions each day.
“We are more athletic,” Gruden said, speaking specifically about White and Muse. “But until we put the pads on all we are doing is making a bunch of predictions.”
The two rookies add an element the Raiders sorely lacked last year, and that is the necessary skill set to match up against running backs, tight ends and receivers in pass coverage. White played safety his first three seasons at UNLV before moving to a hybrid linebacker position as a senior, Muse played safety throughout his career at Clemson, although in the Tigers scheme he spearheaded the back-end run support while also matching up in pass coverage.
Those same coverage skills were the big factor in the Raiders targeting and signing both Littleton and Kwiatkoski, both of whom will add strong coverage elements while also being noted run defenders.
The Raiders ranked 29th in linebacker pass coverage last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and that deficiency created a liability that opposing offenses continually exploited last year.
“In this game of football we play today it’s paramount and it’s an area that we needed to address,” Gruden said. “And fortunately there were some good linebackers available in free agency and obviously we made that a priority. We are really happy with Kwiatkoski and Littleton.”
Morrow’s experience and familiarity certainly give him an edge. The three-year veteran has made 18 starts over his career, including eight last year when he amassed 73 total tackles.
The issue, though, was in pass coverage. Morrow was targeted 61 times last year and surrendered 45 receptions (73.8 percent) for 453 yards and three touchdowns. A whopping 329 of those 453 yards came after the catch. On average, ,Morrow gave up 10 additional yards after the catch.
The drafting of Muse and the signing of White clearly indicate the Raiders were looking for an element of pass coverage as they go about filling the spot alongside Littleton and Kwiatkoski.
Whether Muse or White has enough time in the streamlined training camp to beat out Morrow remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if one or both are on the field sooner rather than later.