HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — Changes were coming to the Las Vegas Raiders defense, as Maxx Crosby knew back in January when he was cleaning out his locker.
“I expect there to be a big turnover,” he said at the time.
Changes certainly came, and the Raiders' depth chart for Sunday's season opener at the Denver Broncos reflects that.
Linebacker Robert Spillane, cornerback Marcus Peters and safety Marcus Epps are newcomers listed as starters. Tyree Wilson, drafted seventh overall this year, could start depending on whether Chandler Jones plays. Cornerback Jakorian Bennett is listed on the second team, but has been with the starters in practice when Las Vegas has operated out of the nickel defense.
“We’ve had competition at every spot,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “Feel like we have some depth on defense where we’re going to be able to play multiple people in there. They’ve really acclimated well to one another.”
If preseason practices and games were any indication, the new players should help the defense make noticeable improvement. But making plays, even in competitive scrimmages with other teams, is far different than doing it when the games begin to count.
“I like the guys that we have on our team,” Epps said. “I like the group we have in the secondary. Got a lot of trust in those guys, and I see what we’ve been bringing to the table every day in terms of work ethic and coming to work, and I like that about our group.”
Epps was one of the more notable offseason signings. He started all 17 games last season for the Philadelphia Eagles team that reached the Super Bowl. Epps made a career-high 92 tackles that season.
Peters was another veteran pickup, signing with Las Vegas on July 24 on the eve of camp. He is a two-time All-Pro player with 32 interceptions, six returned for touchdowns.
Spillane played all five of his seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, starting 16 games over the past three years.
Bennett, drafted in the fourth round this year out of Maryland, made an impact early in camp by showing an ability to make plays on the ball. It was clear then he would be part of this season's defensive plans.
“Jakorian is a great guy on and off the field,” cornerback Nate Hobbs said. “Super smart young guy. He doesn't have a ceiling. His ceiling is past his roof.”
And then there's Wilson, whose start with the Raiders was delayed by a foot injury from last season at Texas Tech. He didn't begin practicing until well into camp, but could get a big opportunity to play on Sunday.
Much of that depends on Jones' status. Jones, the listed starter at defensive end, twice this week on Instagram posted and then deleted criticisms of Raiders management.
McDaniels said no one will play 70 snaps, so Wilson likely will be eased into the season no matter what happens with Jones. No matter, Wilson said he's in outstanding physical and game shape even with all of his missed practice time.
“We work hard and we condition every day,” Wilson said. “So we've got to be the best at both.”
The Raiders drafted Wilson to address their anemic pass rush. Even with Crosby, who had 12 1/2 sacks last season, Las Vegas as a team was 30th in the NFL with 27.
It was far from the only area in which the defense did not measure up well. Las Vegas also was 28th in total defense (365.6-yard average), 26th in scoring defense (24.6-point average) and tied for last with the New Orleans Saints with an 0.8 takeaways average.
So to say there was room for improvement was an understatement. Thus the infusion of new players.
“A lot of young guys who have got the potential to be great,” Hobbs said.
Crosby knew changes were coming. And they certainly came.
But whether the Raiders defense is actually significantly improved is another question.
Sunday will be the first true indication.
“We haven't played in a real game yet together, so we're super excited,” Crosby said this week. “We're focused on the week, getting prepared for the game and doing our absolute best. Marcus, Spillane, all those guys have (brought) great energy every single day and work their (butt) off, so that's really all you can ask for. The guys have been incredible since they got in here.”
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Mark Anderson, The Associated Press