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Raiders 2018 draft class already showing signs of improved pass rush

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The Raiders went into the 2018 NFL Draft needing a better interior rush from Game 1 of the preseason, it looks like they got it.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since the Oakland Raiders were any good defending the pass. They’re hopeful about their secondary now as they expect safety Karl Joseph and cornerback Gareon Conley to break out this year. Plus they’ve added CB Rashaan Melvin along with a host of other defensive backs in free agency.

So in the 2018 NFL Draft, they addressed their pass-rush with interior pass-rushers PJ Hall and Maurice Hurst and got edge-rusher Arden Key to rotate with Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.

Mack sacked the quarterback 10.5 times in 2017 despite all the triple-teams he faced. But the Raiders were No. 24 in sacks, leading to the No. 26 ranking against the pass. From the beginning, head coach Jon Gruden believed he got the right men for the job.

“To get those two guys, we felt they were the top two inside rushers in this draft,” Gruden said in May of Hall and Hurst.

“Two years ago, his tape was unbelievable,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said in May of Key. “He was a heck of a football player. He gained 25 or 26 pounds—he bulked up. I think he tried to add a different dimension to his game size-wise. Perhaps it backfired, he got hurt and there were issues there. He underachieved his year, but I go back to the film two years ago—the kid is special—and I know the man that’s been training him.”

All three did their share of impressing the players and coaching staff in training camp. Key was the one that made the most noise, beating anyone on the offensive line from 1st-round tackle Kolton Miller to elite guard Kelechi Osemele.

In the first preseason game of the year with Key out with a sprained ankle, Hall and Hurst impressed. Hall had a sack on his first snap of the preseason, simply overpowering Detroit Lions guard Joe Dahl. He also worked well in combination with Hurst, batting a pass down while Hurst had pressure on the quarterback. Hurst also barely missed a tackle for a loss after knifing into the backfield on a run play. They both showed the same quickness off the ball and power they showed in college so Gruden is definitely fired up.

“Well, P.J. Hall comes in on his very first play and gets a sack, I think he bats a pass down, I think he batted down and blocked a lot of kicks in college,” Gruden said after the game. “He’s just a very good inside rusher and that’s great for him. He missed part of training camp with a pec strain. Maurice Hurst had some good pressures. I would’ve loved to see an Arden Key play tonight but he didn’t go. And we’re really hopeful one of these days we’ll get Khalil back to fortify everything but good start for our two young guys.”

Indeed this is a good start for the two youngsters and if they can keep this up in the regular season, opposing quarterbacks will be in trouble. Hall sounded like he has a ton of confidence from getting a sack so soon.

“Yeah, it was on my first snap,” Hall said after the game. “It felt good to accomplish that. It was a great feeling. We know we need to have an interior rush. Coach [Gruden] had faith in me to go out there with the first team in the nickel to get it done. So I was excited to get that done.”

Hall had the sack and a batted pass in just 20 snaps and Hurst had a couple of pressures including a QB hit in just 21 snaps. Neither are in the starting lineup now but will at very least rotate in. It looks like there will be heat coming from the inside as well as off the edges from the Raiders in 2018. Wherever he was, Mack had to be excited to see the help he’ll have when his contract situation is resolved.