While the Raiders "won" their preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals 31-10, they realistically lost as Mario Edwards Jr. was carted off the field with a hip injury. The injury looked severe, but the Raiders caught a break as Edwards is expected to return within 4-6 weeks meaning he may just suit up for the Raiders season opener against the Saints. Luckily for the Silver and Black, their defense line is as deep as an endless pit which should help mask the loss of Edwards if he misses any regular season games.
To put into context just how much depth the Raiders boast along their defensive line, one of their best players in 2015 is now a backup. Dan Williams has been dethroned from his starting defensive tackle position by both Justin Ellis and rookie Jihad Ward.
The Raiders second round pick (Ward) was highly scrutinized for his lack of production at the University of Illinois. But make no mistake, Ward has dominated Raiders practices according to our own Levi Damien with Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle going as far as calling him the "real deal". Meanwhile, third year nose tackle Ellis continues to improve and provides the Raiders a 331-pound wall of bricks to stuff the run.
Dan Williams's demotion doesn't appear to be a result of regression, but rather Ellis's improvement along with the addition of Ward at 3-tech DT. This leaves the Raiders with three quality defensive tackles who the coaches can rotate and keep their legs fresh.
The defensive end position is equally as impressive with Khalil Mack, Denico Autry, and James Cowser along with Edwards. The Mack Attack will return in 2016 and one could argue he is the best defensive player in the NFL not named J.J. Watt. Edwards has battled numerous injuries; most recently his hip. But when he is healthy, the Raiders second year defensive end has shown he is a game changer. He was a key reason why Mack went on a tear last season after Justin Tuck landed on injured reserve and Aldon Smith was suspended.
Denico Autry earned significant playing time last season and is projected to continue as a rotational piece. He is a valuable asset to the Raiders as he provides insurance in just such an instance. He also allows the coaching staff to rotate their defensive ends when one of the starters needs a breather.
Adding some unexpected help is undrafted free agent James Cowser who is is projected to make the final roster. His 42.5 sacks and 80 tackles for loss at Southern Utah are both FCS records, not bad for the Raiders fourth option.
The Raiders are hoping Mario Edwards Jr will be healthy in time for their season opener against the Saints. But a loaded defensive line will help cushion the blow of losing the quality starter if he indeed misses any of the regular season.