State of the Raiders Defensive Line Brings Hope, Stress & Intrigue

That was the mantra of Pro Football Hall of Fame members Ron Wolf and Raiders owner Al Davis for years when it came to describing their defensive philosophy. With today’s rules allowing receivers to prance across the middle and quarterbacks to be near untouchable, those words are as powerful as ever. For the most part, the days of the 5 and 6-second coverage sacks are over and you need to get to the quarterback.

Even with the video game passing numbers of today, defense still wins championships. Out of the four teams that played in the conference championships last year, ALL of them were in the top five in scoring defense. For the Raiders, a huge key to the success of their defense and their season will be the play of their defensive line.

The Khalil Mack Saga

Khalil Mack remains a holdout. While Aaron Donald held out last year, most said he would never step on a football field as a Ram ever again, but he signed right before the season started. In my mind, that’s what will happen with Mack. We really don’t know what is being said and what the mood is with the Raiders and Mack so it would be wise not to overreact to things you hear and see online.

There is no bad guy in my mind. Mack wants big money with a lot guaranteed and the team doesn’t want to pay it. The lack of priority on the DL position does worry me though in regards to signing Mack. In the last 21 first round draft picks, the Raiders have chosen a defensive back nine times (including 3 of the last 6 drafts) and have never chosen a true DL.  Even with all of the draft picks and signings the last six years, they still have question marks in the defensive backfield, and linebacker is also a worry. Their philosophy and player personnel choices the last 6 years have not fixed the defense. The pass rush has been in the top 24 just once in the Khalil Mack era. Without Mack and his sacks, this defense is in trouble.

Some Familiar Faces

There will be some familiar faces on the defensive line this fall, and for the most part, you know what you have. Bruce Irvin is a solid player and Justin “Jelly” Ellis remains a constant on the DL, but there is definitely room for improvement at the tackle position.

Mario Edwards Jr. wasn’t bad last year ending the season with 27 combined tackles and 3 ½ sacks, but the Raiders are like many NFL teams that would love more production out of the defensive lineman position. I think this is the year he will either get to the next level or just be considered a fairly good football player.

Eddie Vanderdoes ended a rough year last year by tearing his ACL in Week 17 and there is no timetable for his return. The former five-star recruit never became the force they had hoped for at UCLA and he struggled with the Raiders his rookie year. They hope he doesn’t end up the next Jihad Ward who already has been shipped out.

New Faces Bring Hope

I was asked to participate in a pre-draft roundtable and I had one name in capital letters for my first round pick for the Raiders; Michigan Defensive Tackle Maurice Hurst.

Oakland getting him in the fifth round was an amazing bit of luck and I think it will pay off in a big way. Hurst was hard-working and is fundamentally sound. He played well against their toughest opponents, which is huge for me. It’s hard to rely on a rookie in the NFL, but I pencil him in as a starter. With governmental HIPAA regulations protecting them, Hurst and other players have not talked much about their cardiac issues so we don’t know what specifically is wrong with Hurst.

Nick Fairley and Star Lotulelei also had heart conditions and fell in recent drafts, but not out of the first round.

Arden Key is raw but he could be a designated pass rusher in his rookie year. Key had some great stats in college and is an amazing athlete with blazing speed. A strong locker room is needed to help him mature and learn the fundamentals.

Rookie PJ Hall from Sam Houston State had monster stats in college and even at his large size, his quickness is eye turning and he is intriguing. Former San Francisco 2nd round pick Tank Carradine is looking for a fresh start after four disappointing years there. Ahtyba Rubin and Frostee Rucker were signed to add depth.

What Lies Ahead

This is going to be a long and tense preseason for the Raiders and their fans. Mack is a top-five defender and a great player and I can’t see where the pass rush would be without him. The leap from College to the NFL is a big one so expecting rookies to get to the pro bowl and carry a defense is risky at best. The hope is that Mack signs with an added plus of NaVorro Bowman signing as well. I think everyone is going to have to wait until Week 1 to be able to evaluate what the Raiders have on the DL, as well as their overall defense.

August will definitely be a hot month in Oakland.

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