The Oakland Raiders need a pass rusher outside of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin to be a significant contributor. As a third-round pick, that responsibility will fall on Shilique Calhoun.
The Oakland Raiders had an impressive 2016 season in most areas. With the exception of the dominant Khalil Mack and the irrepressible Bruce Irvin, the pass rush was not one of those areas.
Mack did his part, with 11 sacks en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year. Irvin did too, amassing 7 sacks (second highest total of his career) and a career-high 6 forced fumbles.
Despite this, the Raiders finished dead-last in the NFL with 25 total sacks. That means that aside from Mack and Irvin, the rest of the defense mustered 7 sacks. Seven. SE-VEN.
This resulted in a lot of broken coverage on the back-end with DBs being forced to cover for long stretches of time. Sean Smith didn’t live up to his contract or billing as a #1 CB, and David Amerson’s play fell off a bit after a stellar 2015 campaign. The backfield deserves their share of blame. But the lack of a consistent pass rush heavily contributed to the Raiders porous pass defense in 2016.
The team needs someone to step up the rush in 2017. A healthy Mario Edwards Jr. immediately bolsters the interior rush. Darius Latham showed some nice flashes inside last year — and Eddie Vanderdoes and Jihad Ward have potential to get push up the middle. But that will not be any of their primary roles. The Raiders need another player to go hunt.
The best candidate to step up as a pure pass rusher is Shilique Calhoun. He missed the last six games of his rookie season with a knee injury, and otherwise was outplayed by undrafted James Cowser when he was healthy. This isn’t a Raider squad devoid of or desperate for talent any longer, and nobody is guaranteed a roster spot. To that end, even though he had little chance to prove himself last season, the 2016 third-rounder is on notice.
A 4-3 defensive end with Michigan State, Calhoun had a stellar three-year career. He posted 44 tackles for loss, and 27 sacks, living in opposing backfields. The Raiders grabbed him with the #75 pick.
At 251 pounds, Calhoun was undersized for NFL end. The team had a fair amount of talent along the line, and so decided to flip the rookie to outside linebacker. It was a tough transition.
Calhoun lacks the lower-body fluidity to transition in coverage. The few times he was in that spot in 2016, it was the NFL equivalent of a stress position. In addition, the knock on him coming out of college was his lack of dominant strength and inability to shed blocks at the point of attack in the run game on the line. This is why the Raiders transitioned him to linebacker.
In 10 games of limited action, Calhoun mustered only five tackles in 2016. He routinely struggled to set the edge in the run game, and couldn’t muster much pass rush.
He presented as a classic tweener — not quite fluid enough to play coverage, not quite big or strong enough to set the edge consistently.
So that’s why he’s packed on 20 pounds this offseason, and is ready to rock. Raider insiders took note of how much bigger he’s gotten during OTAs and were suitably impressed.
He also went dark after 2016, deleting or making dormant his social media accounts and focusing all his energy on football. In an interview posted on Raiders.com, Calhoun talked about the importance of football and why he left the digital world.
"“I think that social media really takes away from everyday interactions,” Calhoun stated. “Since football is my baby, it needs attention, I need to feed it, I need to feed my mind with knowledge, I need to nurture my body to make sure that I’m up to par with being able to play, and I need to be able to do it at a high level.”"
In fact, this is the last Tweet Calhoun sent — though his Twitter account is technically still active:
This thirst for knowledge builds on the football knowledge Calhoun devoured while rehabbing his knee at the end of 2016. He says the injury was tough from a mental standpoint. But he used the time to concentrate on the X’s and O’s aspect of the game.
In that same interview the second-year player praised the culture of the team, and talked of how lucky he is to be able to learn from the likes of Mack and Irvin and play for a team this tight-knit. He’s clearly emulating Mack already as his offseason weight gain takes an eerily similar tone.
Khalil Mack put on about 20 pounds his rookie offseason, and became an absolutely unblockable monster. He’s now the DPOY, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Calhoun weighed 251 pounds his rookie season. He’s added 20 pounds this offseason and is saying and doing all the right things. Not saying Calhoun is Mack — nobody is — but the similarities are intriguing and somewhat enticing. And Calhoun has Mack to watch and emulate daily.
His claim that football is “his baby” is certainly borne out by his actions this offseason. Sure he’s bigger, but with the same agility and quickness. While running with the second team behind Mack in OTAs, he hadn’t lost a step despite the extra weight.
It was his own decision to gain the weight — with Coach Del Rio’s blessing — so he can hold the edge better and shed blocks more effectively. He says that his workout regimen has allowed him to greatly increase his strength while maintaining his agility.
That means, presumably, that he’ll be much better at shedding blocks and setting the edge in the run game. That also means he may again be putting his hand in the dirt on passing downs, combining his rush speed and agility with added power to increase his versatility as a pass rusher.
It’s hard to judge Calhoun from his 2016 campaign, as he was playing a new position and adjusting to the speed of the game while never 100% healthy. Then he shut it down to have surgery. It was a disappointment by any measure, particularly for a top-100 pick.
Members of Raider Nation are definitely looking forward to Calhoun stepping it up in 2017:
Calhoun has the pedigree, has put in the offseason work, is willing to listen and learn, and loves the game as much as life itself. Those ingredients, when combined with talent, are a recipe for success.
The Raiders have Super Bowl aspirations this season. To maintain that lofty goal the quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard. And far more often than in 2016.