Not many know what the plan was head coach Jon Gruden had for the Oakland Raiders coming into this season. But it’s obvious now that Gruden is rebuilding the team now. The only thing the Raiders do worse than play offense these days is play defense. The defensive line is especially a weakness as the Raiders can’t stop the run or rush the passer. They’re currently ranked No. 28 against the run and tied for No. 30 in sacks.
The team drafted nose tackle PJ Hall in the second round, defensive end Arden Key in the third round and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst in the fifth round. But so far, Hurst, who would have been a top-10 pick if not for a heart condition, is the only one starting as of this writing. The team got to 1-5 with the veterans starting so it’s time to see what Hall and Key can do in there with Hurst and defensive end Frostee Rucker, who’s playing pretty well now.
Hall, with his freaky combination of power and athleticism, looked good in the preseason and started Week 1 at the 3-technique over Hurst. But Hurst took a stranglehold the 3-tech position after Hall missed a few weeks with an injury. Hall has since been moved to shade nose tackle on passing downs and is now starting to look good there.
There were concerns about Hall’s ability to play the run as a nose tackle but he’s holding up well. The sample size is too small to elaborate on statistically but he has shown the ability to penetrate for tackles for losses and anchor against double-teams. He would have had his first sack in the NFL last week against the Seattle Seahawks but it was negated by a penalty. At the same time, the Raiders have nothing to lose at this point so they need to start Hall.
Arden Key has made tremendous progress from the preseason to now. He started getting a pressure on the quarterback in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos. And he has grown into getting more consistent pressure with four of them in each of the last two games and his first NFL sack last week. Key is another Raiders rookie defensive lineman that Gruden and staff had concerns about playing the run. But so far this season, he hasn’t been too bad against the run as Pro Football Focus gave him a run defense grade of 68.9 to 57.9 for starter Bruce Irvin.
Irvin made the top-100 NFL player countdown by playing outside linebacker and rushing on passing downs while the Raiders are horrible at outside linebacker now. So since Key is holding up against the run, he should be the starter at defensive end while Irvin moves back to OLB in the base defense. Such a move would make the Raiders better against the run and in covering running backs and tight ends, which the Raiders are currently struggling with.
With the run defense and pass-rush being as bad as it, the Raiders have nothing to lose. At the same time, Hall and Key are performing much better than expected against the run and better than the veterans starting over them. So the Raiders would be better off starting them along with veteran DE Frostee Rucker and fellow rookie Maurice Hurst, who has the best run defense grade on the Raiders front-7 (78) as well as as two sacks. If not for any other reason, Gruden and staff should focus on developing them for the future with Hurst.
It would be nice to see Hall, Key and Hurst combine to eventually make up for the loss of Khalil Mack.