RaiderRamble.com takes a closer look at the battle brewing inside the Raiders’ defensive line: Men At Work.
The Oakland Raiders 2016 defensive line was incredibly inconsistent as a group; even though it had NFL superstar and Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack (hybrid outside linebacker and defensive end), who finished with 11 sacks, the Raiders finished dead last in the NFL with 25.
Mack accounted for 44% of the teams’ sacks and seven more came from linebacker Bruce Irvin, which means that the two were responsible for 72% of the takedowns the team generated. As a pass rush duo, they accounted for 11 of the teams 20 forced fumbles or 55% of the teams’ production. Essentially Irvin and Mack were a dominant force but also the only force in the team. Irvin by the way, is not a defensive lineman; he is a bit of a linebacker hybrid and pass-rush specialist, so who else resides on the defensive line that can help strengthen the group as a whole?
Returning in 2017 for the Raiders …
Defensive End, Khalil Mack
One of the most dominant overall players in the entire NFL, he is on a historical climb to obliterate sack records and make a yearly case for DPOY. He is also arguably the best defensive end in the NFL against the run. There’s no need to examine any further; Mack is a team captain and a nightmare for opposing offenses to stop.
Defensive End/Defensive Tackle, Mario Edwards Jr.
He started his career as an uncertain prospect out of Florida State in the second round of the 2015 draft. He quickly proved himself to be a dedicated and motivated player amidst some immaturity and weight issues in college. After a promising rookie campaign lining up at various techniques on the defensive line, it was assumed he was the answer opposite of Mack. Edwards’ 2015 campaign stopped in week 15 after a suspiciously threatening neck injury. After his recovery, he was expected to have a massive 2016 until a devastating hip-injury in preseason eventually shelved him on the 2016 IR with a minimal late season return.
While consecutive season ending injuries are troubling, Edwards has shown up in immaculate shape this off-season, providing some confidence in his body to recover past the set backs physically. The Raiders defensive staff wants him to emerge as the defensive end starter and use his versatility on the interior of the defensive line on third down passing situations. Much like last season, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. will want to ride on Bruce Irvin’s success on the edge as a pass rusher, while having a pocket pusher like Mario wrecking havoc up the middle, something that was non-existent in 2016.
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle, Justin Ellis
The broad Ellis and his 334 lb fit every bit of his nickname “Jelly” on the interior defensive line. He will be entering the last season of his 2014 rookie deal, and he’ll be counted on to be a major contributor versus the run on early downs. Similarly, he’ll need to consume more running lane space and play better laterally down opposing offensive line running gaps. He has yet to notch his first career sack, and nobody expects him to turn himself into something he’s not, just to provide sound interior run defense to ease the linebacker corps in diagnosing the rush attack. After seeing fellow interior defensive lineman Dan Williams leave in free agency, Ellis figures to be the contractually cheaper option inside.
Defensive End/Defensive Tackle, Jihad Ward
A perfect Reggie McKenzie project second round pick, Ward has a background in multiple sports and multiple positions in each of those sports. His rookie campaign was kicked into gear with the loss of Mario Edwards Jr. on the injured reserve. The positives are that he was able to put his extremely raw skill set to the test early and often and that he can and played all over the defensive line last season. The staff liked his athleticism and energy, but his production and technique still need to be polished.
Ward has changed his physique a bit to more of a leaner stronger build at 6’5 and slightly under 300 pounds. The measurables are there, and it’s time to both put the game together on the field and to be a versatile rotational piece to spell starters on the defensive line.
Defensive End/Defensive Tackle, Denico Autry
Hard to believe Autry is entering his fourth season in Silver and Black after fighting his way up from the practice squad in 2014. In the past two seasons, he’s shown flashes after finishing third on the team with 3 sacks in 2016 while only starting 7 games. At 27 years old, Autry has a chance to hold off some of the young additions and flash some veteran production. If he’s going put it all together, now is the time.
Defensive Tackle, Darius Latham
We’ll find out soon if Darius Latham appeared in 14 games as an undrafted rookie in 2016 because of his ability or the lack of talent in the interior of the Raiders defensive line. The experience he gained is undoubtedly his best tool to propel himself into a rotational role and take the next step.
Defensive Line Pieces, Jimmy Bean & Branden Jackson
Largely practice squad pieces in 2016 while Jackson did get the call up in December. Between the two, practice squad retention looks bleak for 2017.
2017 Defensive Line Draft Additions
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle, Eddie Vanderdoes
The third round pick out of UCLA is a very intriguing product. Seemingly, he’s Dan Williams’ replacement while Justin Ellis is a one-year gap player to soften the transition until Eddie develops into a fully capable starter. I’d say the expectations are rather large for a third round pick coming into camp. Vanderdoes has a skill set that makes him a productive pass rusher from the interior, playing athletically for his size, as a violent pocket disturbance. I thought Eddie fell very favorably to Oakland in the third round which will translate into great value at a huge position of need.
Defensive Tackle, Treyvon Hester
A seventh rounder in the 2016 draft out of Toledo, Hester will have a chance to crack the roster. Again, he benefits from the long list of unproven players on the defensive line previously covered. He has good instincts locating the ball on tape, and if he can build upon that with playing better with his hands in front of his frame, he has the look of a three-technique rotational run stopper.
Just Produce Baby!
There will be a constant flow of camp bodies, not mentioned coming in and over the summer and during the preseason. I wouldn’t count out other rosters camp cuts and surprise veterans chopped off the block in favor of young draftees from opposing teams. There should be no favoritism on the defensive line; the jobs and opportunities are wide open for the taking. The positional group will be crucial to bringing together a similarly questionable linebacker core and a young secondary that’ll need help up front to develop on the fly.
A telling quote of the defensive lines responsibility comes to mind for this group: “The quarterback must go down and he must go down hard” – Al Davis