It’s time for the defensive linemen as we crank up toward the start of training camp Friday with part five of this 10-part series previewing every Raiders position group.
It’s time for the beef as we take a look at perhaps the Raiders’ best position group out there — the defensive linemen.
I will be going off which position players are listed at on the roster, just as I noted in my earlier post on linebackers. That’s why Khalil Mack is here and Bruce Irvin is listed there, despite them playing basically the same position.
Is he a linebacker? Is he a defensive end? Voters for the Associated Press All-Pro teams couldn’t determine that and voted Mack to the first team at both positions. The Raiders took the approach last year of listing him as a defensive end on the roster, but outside linebacker on the depth chart. We’re ignoring all that and calling him a defensive end.
No matter how you define him, Mack will be on the edge nearly every down and try to go chase down the quarterback. That’s something he does as well as just about anybody in the league. The Raiders think he can do it even more than his 15 times last year if he builds on his consistency.
The other starters
The rest of the line will feature a heavy rotation, as is always the goal at such a physical position. The Raiders tend to operate out of a base that’s 3-4 and often has a 5-2 look. That’s three down linemen, with two edge rushers up on the line of scrimmage.
For my listed starters at the three down spots, I’m going with what was most common at mini camp. That was Justin Ellis, Mario Edwards Jr., and second-round pick Jihad Ward.
Ellis played in 12 games and started nine last year. He’s started 23 games in his two NFL seasons. He’s been a great value for a former fourth-round pick and is a bowling ball up the middle at his listed 6-2, 334.
Edwards returned to practice at the start of mini camp after dealing with a serious neck injury. He was on his way to likely earning some All-Rookie honors before the injury last year. Edwards finished his rookie season with 10 starts in 14 games. He had 42 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles. He can play both end and tackle and the 2015 second-round pick figures to be a load assuming he’s back to 100 percent.
Ward, the Raiders’ 2016 second-round pick, was considered to be somewhat of a raw player when he was selected. That might not be the case. Ward, at 6-5, 296, looks the part on the field and was already running with the first-team defense. The Raiders need to get immediate production from their second-round pick and he looks ready to provide that.
The depth inside
If any group on the Raiders has depth, it’s this one.
Dan Williams will play alongside Ellis at times in the “Meat and Potatoes” package. But that’s a nice duo to have even if the Raiders only employ of one of those big guys at a time. The Raiders also have promising former practice squader Leon Orr and fourth-year player Stacy McGee as defensive tackles.
McGee has nine career starts for the Raiders, including four last year. Orr appeared in three games last season and has height (6-5) in addition to his size (320 pounds). He’s slimmed down from last year and with that height and weight, should be able to play defensive end too.
UDFA Darius Latham had some issues in college (two suspensions for violating team rules) and will have some work to do to make his mark in this group.
The depth outside
The Raiders really have two versions of defensive ends. There’s the Khalil Mack-type and then there’s your Mario Edwards Jr.-type. That means some of the depth behind Mack comes from the linebackers group in players such as Shilique Calhoun.
But in terms of other rotational defensive ends, that group includes Denico Autry. He made eight starts last year and had three sacks, including a safety in the home win over the Chargers. He wasn’t involved in the offseason program and I didn’t spy him in any of the photos the Raiders posted Sunday of guys involved in early workouts. It’s unclear why, but if healthy, Autry is a good and valued member of that rotation.
The Raiders also added Damontre Moore this offseason. Moore had a promising 2014 season with the New York Giants before some issues cropped up in the locker room. The Raiders hope to give him a second chance and have him return to being an impactful player.
UDFA Drew Iddings is a small-school guy from South Dakota, but has real size at 6-5, 290 to be one of those versatile defensive linemen the Raiders like.
Two other undrafted players both fit more of the pass rushing role. Greg Townsend Jr. is the son of Raiders’ all-time sacks leader Greg Townsend. He’s 6-2, 258 out of USC, where he spent five years and had 6.5 career sacks in 33 games.
Texas Tech’s Branden Jackson (6-4, 268) saw his number drop off during his senior year, finishing with just two sacks.