May 26, 2015; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck (91) stretches at organized team activities at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
- Starter: Justin Tuck
- Starter: Dan Williams
- Starter: Mario Edwards Jr.
- Starter: Khalil Mack
- Starter: Curtis Lofton
- Starter: Sio Moore (if healthy)
- In The Mix: Justin Ellis
- In The Mix: Malcolm Smith
- In The Mix: Max Valles
- In The Mix: Ray Ray Armstrong
I don’t think it’s possible for me to say this without sporting a maniacal grin on my face, and picturing Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith being throttled by Silver and Black jerseys, but I think the Raiders defensive front has the potential to be a top ten group this season. The depth is great, the young player to veteran ratio is nice and balanced, the diversity of skill sets, it’s all there.
Many believe there is a lack of pass rushers on the team, but I just can’t see that. I see, not only the potential for one player on this group to eclipse the team’s sack total from 2014, but I see it being accomplished as a group effort. And when it comes to running the football on this group, forget about it.
Khalil Mack is the obvious person I’m talking about when I mention someone who could tally more sacks than the entire Oakland roster of 2014. With a sack machine like that on the loose, you don’t need multiple players with double digit sacks. The Chiefs racked up 46 sacks last season, 5th most in the league, and Justin Houston was the only player on the team with double digit sack totals.
Mack graded out higher than any other rookie player since Pro Football Focus started grading players in 2007, which goes to show just how good he was as a rookie despite having room to improve. In the off season he’s put on anywhere from 14 to 18lbs of pure muscle (depending on the report you read) and hasn’t lost a step in the speed department. The stage is set for this young man to have a Pro Bowl caliber season.
Many people were a bit confused by the Mario Edwards Jr. pick, in the second round of the draft. He’s a big, freakishly athletic, defensive lineman who stuffs the edge, but didn’t do too well in the sack department for one reason or another. In Oakland’s base 4-3 Defense, if Williams is lined up at end, in front of Mack, you can forget about anyone stopping Mack on an blitz. Edwards is big enough to take care of the LT, and possibly a TE as well, leaving nothing but a fearful running back between Mack and his target.
Not to mention, veteran Justin Tuck has shown no signs of slowing down after last season, and should be able to contribute another solid season for the Raiders. But the interior of this line is where I’m really looking to see a lot of punishment handed out. Dan Williams and Justin Ellis are both run stopping specialists. With Tuck and Edwards at the ends, Ellis and Williams in the middle, not to mention the best run stopping linebacker in the league in Mack, that doesn’t leave opposing offenses many options.
The depth and diversity of this front seven is great, I could go on and on about any number of these players, but I think the guy I’m looking for to make a huge impact who has been pretty under the radar is Malcolm Smith. Let’s not forget the former Super Bowl MVP was one of the best OLB talents in the NFL in 2013. Then Smith suffered an off season ankle injury prior to the 2014 season starting; I don’t think he ever fully recovered from that injury last year.
I can’t say I’ve read anything, or seen any official reports to confirm that, but I can say that I watched every single Seahawk game for the past few years (I live in Seattle. I know, I’m sorry) and I noticed a tremendous difference in Smith’s play between the two seasons, he didn’t seem to have the break he did in 2013, and I think that has to do with the ankle injury. Like I said, I could be completely off base with that, but from what I saw out of his play last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Look for Malcom Smith to add a lot of competition to the OLB position group.
OVERALL FRONT SEVEN GRADE: A
I think this is the strongest positions group on the team, and with the energy defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr. is bringing to the table, I can see this group stepping out and surprising a lot of people who aren’t paying attention to the Silver and Black. This is the beginning of the return of the mean, imposing, intimidating Raiders of old (well…a little cleaner version, but still just as imposing.)
Next: Raiders Position Grades: Secondary