Most Improved Defenses For 2016
Oakland Raiders — The Raiders were one of the most active teams during the 2016 free agency period, and while their biggest headline-grabbing acquisition might’ve been the signing of free agent offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, the shrewd and strategic signings they made on defense could be the catalyst that puts them in contention for the AFC West crown. Oakland added key pieces to nearly every level of their defense, transforming this unit in a hurry.
In the front seven, the Raiders lured away another former Seahawks linebacker in Bruce Irvin — reuniting him with former Seahawks linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr, who’s now the defensive coordinator for the Raiders —
to help bolster their pass rush and give opposing offenses another threat to focus on, opposite of all-world edge rusher Khalil Mack. They also drafted defensive linemen Jihard Ward out of the University of Illinois with their second round pick, and Shilique Calhoun with their third round pick. Both rookies have the tools to develop into effective pass rushers at the professional level, meaning the Raiders could potentially have as many as four effective pass rushers on their roster.
Oakland’s secondary was a major source of headaches in 2015, but that shouldn’t continue in 2016 after the major upgrades they made. They signed away cornerback Sean Smith from division rival Kansas City, giving them a bona fide #1 cornerback opposite of David Amerson (while simultaneously taking away a key player from an AFC West nemesis). On top of the addition to Smith, they’ll likely have two new starters at both safety positions. They signed Reggie Nelson, a Pro Bowler in 2015 who the notoriously-frugal Bengals chose not to retain, to take over the free safety position. At strong safety, they’ll likely start Karl Joseph, their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, out of West Virginia University. Joseph was one of the fastest rising and most exciting prospects in the draft, because of his tenacious hitting ability and non-stop-motor on every play.
While casual NFL fans outside the Bay area will associate the Raiders with their young and talented offense, they’ll likely be a much more balanced force by the end of this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars — After spending last offseason upgrading the offense (which exploded onto the scene in 2015), Jacksonville focused their attention on the defense this past offseason. They made a slew of acquisitions — and will get back a few players from injury — that could very well lead to a similar leap on the defensive side of the ball.
Their biggest acquisition was defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who won a Super Bowl ring in Denver last year. Jackson will be a nightmare along the Jaguars defensive front (like he was for the Broncos); pair him with Sen’Derrick Marks, who only played in four games last season, and the Jaguars could have a very formidable run-clogging duo up front. They’ll also get back defensive end Dante Fowler Jr, their first round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft who missed all of last year after tearing his ACL on the first day of training camp last year. From all accounts, Fowler might actually look even more explosive coming off the rehab of said injury. Reports say he’s been an absolute terror in this year’s training camp.
In the secondary, the Jaguars also added safety Tashaun Gipson, a former Pro Bowl player while in Cleveland. Gipson will play more of a single-high safety role, which head coach Gus Bradley brought over from the Seattle Seahawks. Think of Gipson being the Earl Thomas for this defense, allowing incumbent starter Jonathan Cyprien to play more of a Kam Chancellor-type role opposite Gipson, which he’s FAR better suited for.
But the biggest acquisitions on the Jaguars defense have to be the two superstuds they took with their first two picks in the 2016 NFL Draft: defensive back Jalen Ramsey (who many analysts had as their #1 overall player in this past draft) and linebacker Myles Jack (who will be the steal of this draft if the worries around his knee turn out to be much ado about nothing). Ramsey and Jack ooze with athleticism, and have all the talent to become true superstars at the pro level.
Like the Raiders, the Jaguars might be most associated with their young stud quarterback and duo of stud receivers, but by season’s end, their defense could very well make a name for itself too.
Photo credit: Joe Bielawa