NAPA — The Oakland Raiders probably should wear name tags in the defensive huddle in training camp.
With nine projected starters coming from outside the organization, getting on the same page is the top priority this summer.
Coach Dennis Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver are placing a premium on communication to make sure that when the season starts everybody is lined up in the proper place and sticking to their roles to avoid the defensive breakdowns that too often doomed the Raiders a year ago.
At the center of it all is middle linebacker Nick Roach. The Raiders signed Roach as a free agent from Chicago to replace disappointing former first-round pick Rolando McClain, whose deficiencies were often at the center of Oakland’s defensive struggles.
“That dude is brilliant,” safety Tyvon Branch said of the Raiders’ new defensive signal caller. “He picks up everything quick. There’s no curveballs with that guy. He gets everything the first time around. He’s a very intelligent player. He really takes command of the huddle. He gets guys lined up. ... It definitely helps when you have a guy like him out there orchestrating everything.”
It’s not an easy job considering the varied backgrounds of this group of defenders. Some are coming from teams that played three-man fronts while others are more used to the four-man defensive lines the Raiders typically use. Some are from teams that played more passive zones while others are accustomed to defenses that blitz more often.
So along with learning a new defense, the Raiders need to learn about their new teammates since Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston are the only starters who played together last year.
“It’s crazy. That’s just the game now,” said reserve defensive end Andre Carter, who is one of the few returning players on this defense. “It will be about communication and jelling. I have this guy next to me. I have to understand how he works and how his mechanics are so I can help him and he can help me. You have to communicate and work off each other.”
Carter said getting to that point takes constant work from the meeting room to the practice field and even the lunch room, where a quick question about how a player approaches a certain situation can avoid a communication breakdown on the field.
Allen said he’s seen the results from the focus on communication through the first week of camp even if he knows there will always be some breakdowns no matter how familiar a team is.
“I think as these guys continue to get a feel for each other, continue to hang out here, continue to talk, continue to go in the meetings and understand exactly what we’re trying to get done, I think the communication is going to continue to get better,” he said. “The positive thing is, they understand the importance of it, they want to be good, and they’re working extremely hard to get that done.”
Of the 11 projected starters at this point, only Branch and Houston were with Oakland a year ago. None of the other nine has played an NFL game with each other.
Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive back Michael Huff were cut in moves to create salary-cap space. McClain was let go after three ineffective seasons and clashes with the coaching staff.
Defensive linemen Desmond Bryant and Matt Shaughnessy and linebacker Philip Wheeler got free-agent contracts with other teams, and the Raiders had no interest in bringing back defensive tackle Richard Seymour and safety Matt Giordano. Linebacker Miles Burris is recovering from offseason knee surgery and is unlikely to regain his starting job.
In their place, the Raiders signed a pair of free agent defensive tackles in Pat Sims and Vance Walker; defensive end Jason Hunter; linebackers Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava; cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins; and safeties Charles Woodson and Usama Young. Oakland used a first-round pick on cornerback D.J. Hayden and a third-rounder on linebacker Sio Moore.
There was plenty of good reason for the overhaul after the Raiders allowed the most points per game (27.7) for the franchise since 1961, a franchise-worst 66 percent completion rate, and tied a franchise low with 25 sacks.
The Raiders are optimistic those numbers will improve drastically this season.
“I think we’re going to be a fast-flowing defense,” Woodson said. “I think that if you can have that on any team, a team that’s willing to sell out every play and get to the ball, you’re going to be in ballgames.”
NOTES: The Raiders signed DT Myles Wade, who has spent time previously with Seattle and Tampa Bay.