‘Sick, twisted’ Christian Wilkins is going to fit in just fine with the Raiders


HENDERSON, Nev. — On his first day at Las Vegas Raiders team headquarters, the biggest takeaway for Christian Wilkins was a simple message: be yourself. The edict that has been instilled by coach Antonio Pierce since he took over as interim coach midway through the 2023 season isn’t necessarily unique, but it’s real. And it’s felt as soon as one steps into the building.

Wilkins has a boisterous personality. He has earned a reputation as a relentless trash talker on the field and a constant joker in the locker room. He’s a spontaneous guy who’ll do anything from a celebratory split to resorting to underhanded tactics in fumble scrums to get his hands on the football. Although Wilkins hadn’t yet experienced it firsthand, he was drawn to the Raiders by the opportunity to stay true to who he is.

“I’m such a character and such an animated, sick, twisted, individual,” Wilkins said Thursday. “I just love the game. I love the grind, and you just feel that here. … Something’s different about this place and how people go about it. Everyone’s themselves. There’s great energy here, and I’m glad I could be a part of it.”

With a loud “Raiders!” chant, Wilkins signed his four-year, $110 million contract with the franchise on Thursday. When he later addressed the media, he’d changed out of a team-issued hoodie and put on a custom silver and black suit with blackjack cards printed on the interior.

The 28-year-old defensive tackle was a first-round pick out of Clemson in 2019 and entered the NFL with lofty expectations. But his journey hasn’t been a linear one. He was merely solid through his first two seasons. He broke through as an impact player in 2021. His ascent has been constant since then, but he has maintained the same drive despite the success.

“That mentality that I won’t be denied and just the desire to be great,” Wilkins answered when asked how he made the leap. “I worked so hard and didn’t have much results or much production early. You’ve just got to grind through it. … You never know where you’ll end up if you just keep working with passion and a great mindset and keep having that love for what you do.”

The Raiders gave Wilkins $82.75 million in guaranteed money. He was paid $57.5 million at signing and will receive a guaranteed $20.5 million roster bonus in March 2025. His 2026 salary of $25.25 million doesn’t become fully guaranteed until March 2025, but it was guaranteed for injury at signing. He’ll have cap hits of $11.5 million in 2024, $35 million in 2025 and $31.75 million in 2026 and 2027. He has an average annual salary of $27.5 million, which ranks fourth in the NFL among defensive tackles. That’s a huge investment, but it’s easy to understand why general manager Tom Telesco was comfortable making it.

Wilkins will primarily be used as a three-technique defensive tackle, according to league sources briefed on the matter. A three-technique lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard. That role requires a defensive lineman to be quick and agile enough to rapidly penetrate through the offensive line and cause disruptions in the backfield whether through tackles for loss in the run game or impacting the quarterback against the pass. Wilkins is 6-foot-4, 310 pounds with elite athleticism, burst and footwork, so it’s an ideal fit for his skill set.

Wilkins can also line up at other positions along the defensive line. In five seasons with the Dolphins, Wilkins logged at least 100 snaps at left defensive end, left defensive tackle, nose tackle, right defensive tackle and right defensive end. He has experience playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and boasts true inside-outside versatility.

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There aren’t many defensive play callers in the NFL who mix up their personnel groupings, front alignments and coverages as frequently as Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. He was the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator when they drafted Wilkins in 2019, so he already knows the player well both on and off the field. The same goes for defensive line coach Rob Leonard, who held multiple defensive assistant coach roles with the Dolphins from 2019 to 2021. That familiarity should pay dividends both from a schematic and relationship perspective.

“That makes a transition like this easier,” Wilkins said.

Graham will know how to utilize Wilkins’ ability to move around the D-line. For example, the Raiders plan to install a sub package for use on passing downs with Maxx Crosby and Malcolm Koonce at defensive end, Tyree Wilson at three-technique defensive tackle and Wilkins at nose tackle, according to league sources briefed on the matter. Having that down-to-down flexibility will make it difficult for opposing offenses to prepare for what’s coming.

Wherever Wilkins has lined up, he has been consistently productive when it comes to making plays behind the line of scrimmage. His best season came last year when he registered 10 tackles for loss (T-21st among defensive linemen), nine sacks (T-17th), 25 quarterback hits (eighth) and 58 pressures (T-21st).

The final piece that drives up Wilkins’ value is his otherworldly stamina. He has played 1,756 snaps since 2022, which is tied with Commanders defensive tackle Daron Payne for the third most in the NFL among defensive linemen. The only linemen who’ve played more snaps during that span are Crosby (2,075 snaps) and Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (1,846).

Wilkins played 84 percent of the Dolphins’ defensive snaps in 2022 and 81 percent last year. That type of endurance would be impressive for anyone, but it’s incredible for someone Wilkins’ size. The Raiders will want Crosby and Wilkins on the field at the same time as much as possible, of course, but their combined presence should also come with the mutual benefit of being able to take more rest when necessary. Wilkins said Crosby is one of his two favorite players in the league — the other is Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence — and lauded his new teammate’s energy.

“That work ethic, that grind and just how he does everything the right way,” Wilkins said. “Obviously, he’s got great talent, but that motor is something that I respect so much. I try to do things like that, too. I try to be an inspiration. … I want to be great at what I do and just be my best. Whatever that means for me, I can live with the results. I can be happy knowing I put my all into this.”

Wilkins and Crosby become arguably the best inside-outside defensive line duo in the league — 49ers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Nick Bosa are pretty good, too — and should make life easier for each other. They’ll have a pick-your-poison dynamic that makes it difficult for opposing offenses to consistently send extra help in either of their directions.

“Now, Maxx doesn’t have to run so far on the outside,” Pierce said last month when envisioning how a game-changing defensive tackle could lessen Crosby’s load. “That quarterback can’t step up anymore because you’ve got that inside, B-gap pressure and force. My main focus is really just building this team inside out.”

The Raiders still have work to do when it comes to building out their defensive line. As it stands, Wilkins is the only defensive tackle on the roster with starting experience. Wilson will play more defensive tackle this year, but he isn’t making a full-time transition from defensive end. Defensive tackles Byron Young, Nesta Jade Silvera, Matthew Butler and Marquan McCall have zero combined career starts. The Raiders have about $25.6 million in cap space at their disposal — that doesn’t account for tight end Harrison Bryant, who agreed to terms on a one-year, $3.25 million contract but hasn’t signed it yet — if they want to address the position in free agency. They could sign outside free agents or bring back in-house free agents like John Jenkins and Adam Butler. Or they could wait to address the position in the draft.

Still, the D-line has the makings of one of the better units in the league with Crosby, Wilkins and Koonce leading the way. And, collectively, there’s plenty to like about how the entire defense is shaping up. The linebacker corps is in already good shape with Robert Spillane, Divine Deablo and Luke Masterson in tow. They need another starter at cornerback, but the secondary has four good starters in cornerback Jack Jones, nickelback Nate Hobbs, strong safety Marcus Epps and free safety Tre’von Moehrig.

There’s a realistic chance the Raiders defense could make the leap from being good last year — they finished ninth in scoring defense —  to great in 2024. The franchise hasn’t had that in decades, and the mere fact that it’s possible is something to get excited about.

“It’s going to have to be built,” Wilkins said. “It’s definitely a process and a journey. … I’m just looking forward to the possibilities.”

(Photo: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)





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