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Raiders target defense early in free agency

NFL Dallas
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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP)The Las Vegas Raiders added another piece as part of their defensive overhaul in free agency, agreeing to a contract with former New Orleans cornerback Eli Apple on Wednesday.

Apple is the sixth defensive player to agree to a contract with the Raiders since the open negotiating window opened on Monday, joining linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, safety Jeff Heath and defensive end Carl Nassib. The Raiders also reached a deal with veteran tight end Jason Witten and quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The team hasn’t announced any of those moves because they can’t be finalized until after the players all pass physicals and sign their contracts, a process on hold because the NFL has barred travel to team facilities by free agents and also has banned team personnel from traveling to meet with players as a safeguard against the new coronavirus.

Several people familiar with all those moves confirmed them on condition of anonymity because they haven’t been announced yet.

But it’s not too early to assess the impact the additions will have on a defense that has allowed the third-most points per game (27.7) and second-most yards per play (6.08) in two seasons under coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

Fixing the problems on defense were a priority for general manager Mike Mayock and he wasted little time addressing weaknesses on all three levels.

The most pressing need was at linebacker, where the Raiders have rotated mostly ineffective players found in the later rounds or on bargain contracts in recent years. That made Littleton a high priority and the Raiders gave him a three-year deal worth a reported $35.25 million.

The 2016 undrafted free agent developed into one of the game’s best coverage linebackers the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. He figures to be a valuable addition to a defense that has perpetually struggled matching up with tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

Littleton’s 26 passes defensed are the most of any linebacker in the NFL over the past three seasons, according to SportRadar. He started all 32 games the past two years with 259 tackles, 22 passes defensed, five interceptions, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 7 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

Littleton will team with Kwiatkoski, who had 76 tackles, three sacks, one interception and four passes defensed last season for Chicago.

But the Raiders didn’t stop at linebacker, adding a pass-rushing defensive tackle in Collins who should help boost a mostly nonexistent interior push, and another edge rusher in Nassib to team with last year’s rookies Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell.

Heath is a veteran who might be able to team with one of last year’s first-round picks Johnathan Abram at safety, while Apple will compete for a starting job at cornerback across from Trayvon Mullen.

The addition of Mariota will give the Raiders a more proven backup behind starter Derek Carr as well as someone capable of challenging for the starting role if Carr struggles.

Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, lost his starting job to Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee last season. But he’s the type of mobile, veteran quarterback that Gruden has had success with in the past. Mariota’s best performance came in his second year in 2016 when he threw 26 TD passes and had a 95.6 passer rating.

Witten, who turns 38 in May, isn’t the impact player he once was, but adds a needed red-zone receiving threat and depth behind last season’s breakout star Darren Waller at tight end.

The one major hole that hasn’t been addressed just yet is at receiver, where the Raiders are still looking for a No. 1 option to team with Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow after last year’s experiment with Antonio Brown failed before he even took the field.

The Raiders have the 12th and 19th picks in a receiver-rich draft and could look to target that hole next month with a rookie.

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