MOBILE, Ala . — Patrick Graham is exactly where he needs to be this week.
The Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator is moonlighting as a head coach of one of the two teams here at the Senior Bowl. The job gives him unfettered access to the dozens of draftable prospects who are participating.
It’s a huge advantage — and a needed one, considering the state of the Raiders’ defense. Literally, any player that’s not an edge defender would be an upgrade for a roster that’s in danger of losing a sizable chunk of its few good players to free agency.
Patrick Graham, Las Vegas Raiders Need Quick Fix
The Raiders were terrible in Graham’s first year as Raiders DC.
They ranked last in interceptions (six) and goal-to-go defense (88.5%) and in the bottom quartile in yards per play (5.8), yards per pass (seven), sack rate (4.6%), first downs per game (21.2), third downs (41.8%), red zone (66%), and scoring (24.6).
And that was with the likes of Denzel Perryman, Rock Ya-Sin, Jerry Tillery, and Duron Harmon — all of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents.
That might be why when asked Wednesday to identify one must-improve area of the defense this offseason, Graham dodged.
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“I just want good players,” Graham said. “They need to be able to stop the run and the pass. Hard to block and tackle. If they can do all that, we’re fine.”
There’s no doubt that talent was the No. 1 reason the Raiders struggled in 2022. But it’s not the only reason. Graham could have been better. He’s had two uninspiring years as DC after two solid ones (with the Miami Dolphins in 2019 and the New York Giants in 2020).
Graham is liked and respected around the league, but it’s also true that his resume hasn’t yet matched his reputation. And he can ill afford a third-straight underwhelming season.
Unfortunately, that’s a real possibility in an AFC West with one team in the Super Bowl (the Kansas City Chiefs), another who hired the No. 1 coach this cycle (the Denver Broncos), and a third who hired an upgrade at offensive coordinator (the Los Angeles Chargers).
When asked about the prospect of having to face Sean Payton twice a year, Graham grimaced out loud.
“No, congratulations to him,” Graham then said. “It’s going to be a challenge. He’s a great coach. A lot of great stories from going against the Saints when he was the coach. Whether it’s the personnel, mixing that stuff up with scheme. I know this: He does a great job of utilizing his talent.
“He knows where to put his players. One thing you can say about Sean from my experience, going against him: He knows his roster. He knows how to use it. He’s going to use everybody that’s up for the game. That’s always fun to go against because it’s a challenge.
“The experience that he has, the toughness that his teams played with. Having practiced against his teams in training camp before, you see that. Obviously, it comes out. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a fun division.”
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Fun is certainly one way to describe it. The Raiders, without an extreme makeover, will be severely outgunned.
Which is why it’s smart that Graham is open to suggestions from two of the few really good players guaranteed to be on the roster in 2023: Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby.
“I’m always looking for insight from the players,” Graham said. “That’s how I learned football. Obviously, I grew up under Bill [Belichick], Matt Patricia, Pepper Johnson, and then some of the other guys that I worked with. But the players, I learned so much from the players over my career.
“Learning from Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, now coming here. I listen to what those guys have to say. They’ve earned the right to be able to have some input … I don’t have those eyes. I wasn’t a very good player. I’m a coach. I can see the tape, but I was never that guy that was a good player.”