The Raiders’ first acquisition in their hope to upgrade from 7-9 was the signing of Nick Kwiatkoski.
He was signed before anyone else, the target of coach Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock to be the signal-calling extension of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on the field for a unit that’s lacked cohesion, communication, speed and most everything else for several years.
Which came as a surprise to Kwiatoski, who went from developmental player to a free agent target in four seasons with the Chicago Bears.
“Initially going into free agency before everything picked up, I really had no idea what was going to happen,” Kwiatkoski said Monday during a zoom conference call. “I was just kind of playing it by ear. Then the Raiders reached out so early and the way they did, I just knew it was something where I knew I was wanted. It was a no-brainer for me.”
The Raiders were serious, committing three years and $21 million with $13.75 million guaranteed, all for a 6-foot-2, 243-pound linebacker with 22 starts in 57 games in four seasons.
They thought enough of him to entrust him with the “green dot,” which goes on the helmet of the defensive player in communication with Guenther. So the Raiders don’t expect Kwiatkoski to leave the field, and are counting on him to make sure he knows everyone else’s job besides his own.
“He’s going to be the lead singer now,” Gruden told the Bay Area News Group in May. “He’s the leader of the band. He’s going to get a chance to make all the calls, all the checks and adjustments, a lot of the communication to free everybody up.”
#Bears Nick Kwiatkoski destroyed the Vikings & Cooks game plan all afternoon. pic.twitter.com/FhD9oTY9HS
— Theo Marshall (@ImTheoMarshall) September 30, 2019
The addition of Kwiatkoski along with the big-name signing of fellow linebacker Cory Littleton comes at a position where the Raiders have floundered in terms of identifying talents with staying power.
In recent years, Tahir Whitehead, Malcolm Smith, Bruce Irvin and Curtis Lofton arrived and moved on, with only Irvin making much of an impact for one season. Draft picks such as Ben Heeney and Shilique Calhoun came and went.
Some of the Raiders most solid play wound up coming from veteran street free agents such as Perry Riley Jr. and Will Compton.
Kwiatkoski will not only be the defensive signal caller, but be called upon to cover tight ends and running backs in space, fit gaps in the running game and even blitz on occasion.
A fourth-round pick out of West Virginia in 2016, Kwiatkoski can be forgiven for being a little anxious while attempting to learn a defense without ever stepping on the field with his teammates until the Raiders convened in Henderson, Nevada on July 28.
Even at that, the Raiders have been doing virtual learning and walkthroughs without playing actual football.
“It’s definitely been nice to finally meet people in person, kind of get an understanding of how things are going to work from here on out and just being on the field,” Kwiatkoski said. “In the Zoom meetings you watch film, it’s really nothing like getting on the field and doing things. Just being here, it feels great. It’s been very helpful.”
After being a standout substitute and a solid starter when needed because of injury, Kwiatkoski maintains his approach won’t be much different with the Raiders than it was with the Bears.
“The process for me doesn’t change,” Kwiatkoski said. “I had that kind of mindset in Chicago even when there was a lot of unknown. Preparing like I’m a starter, preparing like I was going to get reps is something I’ve prided myself on. That’s something others around me prided themselves on, so it’s something they taught me.”
The Bears had a decision to make when Kwiatkoski performed well in place of the injured Danny Trevathan late in the 2020 season. Both players were up for free agency, and the Bears opted to re-up with Trevathan. That left Kwiatkoski free to seek a new employer in free agency.
One reason Chicago couldn’t bring back both players? A guy by the name of Khalil Mack, who signed a six-year, $141 million contract with Chicago after the Raiders balked at his contract demands and traded him for two first-round draft picks, a third round pick and a sixth round pick.
What was Mack’s reaction to Kwiatkoski signing with the Raiders?
“He reached out and congratulated me,” Kwiatkoski said. “That was about it. He was happy, but no advice, no advice.”
Aruna returns to roster
Defensive end Ade Aruna, who was waived July 27 the day before training camp began, is back on the roster after being signed to a contract.
The Raiders are down a defensive lineman with Maxx Crosby out indefinitely list after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Aug. 6.
Aruna (6-foot-5, 263 pounds) is a sixth-round draft pick in 2018 out of Tulane by the Minnesota Vikings. He spent his first year on injured reserve and was waived with an injury settlement in September of his second season. Aruna first came to the Raiders last December as a member of the practice squad.