Free Agency is creeping up and linebacker is one of the Las Vegas Raiders biggest needs and will certainly be a point of emphasis during the offseason.
The Super Bowl is in the books and that means the offseason is officially underway. Every team is looking to improve its roster and free agency is one of the first steps of that process. For the Las Vegas Raiders, addressing the linebacker position will be a high priority.
The middle of the Raiders' defense has been an issue for years now and the time has come to finally find a solution. One player will not do as nearly the entire group needs to be addressed, so even if the team is planning to address the position during the draft, taking a look at the free-agent pool would be a good idea.
General Manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden will have about $55 million in cap space - assuming no one else is let go - to play with so there will be plenty of money to spend in March. It may take top dollar to woo one of the three players listed here, but the organization can't afford to be stingy when it comes to linebackers anymore.
All contract information is taken from our friends at OverTheCap.com.
Just about every team that needs a linebacker will be targeting Cory Littleton. At the position, he's the headliner of the class and his ability to cover is the primary reason.
The four-year pro put together an impressive campaign last season as he allowed 520 receiving yards, a passer rating of 93.3 when targeted, and a measly 6.1 yards per target. Littleton is more than just a one-year wonder as those figures were about the same - 536, 94.3, and 8.4 - in 2018. He also racked up seven and a half sacks the last couple of years and for comparison, all the Silver and Black's linebackers have combined for one during that timeframe.
Where things dicey with Littleton is his play against the run. He only managed to gather six tackles for loss in 2019 which ranks tied for 57th among all linebackers, and he has posted poor PFF run-defense grades throughout his career. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther likes players who are stout against the run, see Tahir Whitehead, so this could make the organization hesitant to open up the checkbook for the former Ram.
At the end of the day, coverage was the biggest issue among the Raiders' linebacking corps this year and has been for some time now. While stopping the ground game is important, it's time for the middle of the defense to get more athletic and start effecting the opponent's aerial attack.
Littleton fits that description and will likely become one of the highest-paid linebackers in the NFL this offseason. For a baseline contract, Deion Jones, who has a similar skill set, makes $14.25 million per year so expect the soon-to-be free-agent to receive a similar contract.
If Littleton is the gold medal of this year's free-agent linebacker class, Joe Schobert is a very respectable silver medal. Schobert may not be a household name but that's primarily because he played for the Browns, an organization synonymous with losing.
Despite the team's record, the 2016 fourth-round pick played at a very high level. His four interceptions this past year were the second-most among the position, and he allowed a passer rating of 74.6 to go along with 6.5 yards per target. To say Schobert would be an upgrade for Las Vegas is an understatement as Nicholas Morrow was the team's best coverage linebacker and he only managed one take away, a passer rating of 97.7 when targeted, and 7.4 yards per target.
Along the same lines as Littleton, Schobert has his deficiencies as run-defender. Over the past two seasons, the former Brown has accumulated 10 tackles for loss which is tied for 65th among linebackers, and he posted a bottom-tier PFF run-defense grade in 2019. Again, this could be a cause for concern among the Raiders' decision-makers.
As far as a new contract goes, I expect him to land a new deal in about the $10 to $12 million per year range. That amount would place him among the likes of Jaylon Smith, Benardrick McKinney, and Eric Kendricks, per OverTheCap.
Out of all the players named in this article, Blake Martinez might be the closest one to a complete linebacker. While he doesn't necessarily have a specialty like Littleton or Schobert, Martinez has been a swiss-army knife in Green Bay.
During his four years as a Packer, the Stanford product accumulated 512 total tackles, 29 of which for loss, and 10.5 sacks. His PFF coverage grades the last couple of seasons have been impressive as well, and are significantly higher than any Raiders' linebacker in 2018 or 2019 (minimum 220 snaps). If Guenther is adamant about maintaining the team's status as the eighth-best rushing defense in the league, then Martinez could be a good compromise.
As impressive as his career has been, this past year was a down year for the four-year veteran. He missed a total of 18 tackles, allowed a completion percentage of 83.8, and a passer rating of 102.1 when targeted. Those aren't exactly ideal statistics for a contract year and certainly raise caution for any potential suitors.
However, this regression could work in the Silver and Black's favor as it may drive the free agent's market down and the team could get him for a discount. It's difficult to determine where Martinez will end up falling on the pay scale, but about $8 million per year seems like a reasonable price tag. That amount places him just above rookie Devin White and in the same category as veterans Demario Davis and Jordan Hicks, per OTC.