The Las Vegas Raiders certainly needed help heading into the 2020 NFL season at linebacker, and they got some on Monday in Nick Kwiatkoski. Then doubled up on Tuesday with Cory Littleton.
The Las Vegas Raiders seemed to have made an initial splash in free agency, but it wasn't a name that most were anticipating. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski comes over from the Bears and should be an injection of youth and speed into the Raiders second level.
While many Raiders fans were hoping the team would land Cory Littleton when free agency tampering kicked off, they would have to wait a day. Now, after inking Kwiatkoski and Littleton on back-to-back days, the Raiders linebacker group is suddenly a strength, and they have addressed one of their biggest needs on this roster.
Heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, the Raiders may be able to use their first round picks outside of the linebacker position, possibly finishing the job in terms of the position group in the third round. There is still a lot of work left to do with this defense, but these two guys are young, talented, and ready to make an impact right away.
Lets take a look at his game and see how Kwiatkoski and Littleton fit into the Raiders defense and what he does well.
Run Defense: A
There are two types of linebackers when it comes to defending the run. There are the types of guys who will make the tackle when the play is there to be made. And then there are linebackers who defeat blockers and make tackles that ruin run schemes.
The second type of linebacker is a dying breed in the NFL because usually those types of guys can't cover the pass. Raiders won't need to worry about the run defense taking a step back with Kwiatkoski in the game, he has advanced understanding of the run game and defeating blockers at the point of attack.
The former Bears linebacker shows good hustle to his game. More of a gritty between the tackles player than a guy who will fly around and make plays all over the field. He has decent athleticism and plays with great effort. He likely won't make a ton of plays in pursuit.
This is an area where the Raiders linebackers failed to make an impact in 2019. Paul Guenther's scheme asks his linebackers to add to the rush in many of his simulated pressure and blitz packages. Kwiatkoski showed some excellent ability in this area, winning with finesse and power, generating pressure on over 27% of his rushes.
Pass Coverage: B-
Don't let out a groan when you read this, but Kwiatkoski isn't nearly as polished defending the pass as he is in other areas of his game. He had a poor game in coverage going up against the Chiefs late in 2019. He can get better of course, but the Raiders coaching staff haven't made any linebacker better in coverage since before Dennis Allen came to town.
Nick Kwiatkoski will likely be better than Tahir Whitehead against the pass, but how much is the question. Watching his development in coverage will be the first area fans should pay attention if and when the season starts.
Run Defense: C
It would be irresponsible to not point out that Cory Littleton's least developed part of his game is taking on blocks in the run game. Good thing for him Kwiatkoski will be the plug linebacker in Guenther's front leaving Littleton to be protected and remain the free hitter.
He can shoot gaps and use his burst to affect the run game, that being said it hasn't been his calling card so far in his career.
Littleton brings a healthy dose of speed to the Raiders defense. He resembles a sprinter at times when he puts his head down and takes off after a play. His ability to make plays from sideline to sideline or close in on a ball-carrier in the open field will instantly improve the Raiders defense for the better.
Pass Coverage: A
There will be those who say that Littleton isn't an elite coverage linebacker and point to some deceiving statistics regarding his numbers when targeted. Watching the film on the other hand paints a different story. Due to Littleton's prowess as a cover man, he is asked to execute techniques that the vast majority of linebackers just can't do; like play man coverage on Pro-Bowl WRs. He's a rare linebacker who can be used as a match-up defender, wearing many hats in coverage. Thats why his numbers might not look so clean, but make no mistake, the Raiders got much better defending the pass when Littleton comes to town.