For a franchise historically famous for their terrifying pass rushers, the Oakland Raiders sure have fielded a lackluster defensive line for the better part of the past two decades. That could change under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and a draft class featuring P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst, and Arden Key.
One of the first decisions Paul Guenther made when he took the opening as Raiders defensive coordinator was to permanently move Bruce Irvin from linebacker to defense end.
Irvin totaled 15.0 sacks and 10 forced fumbles outside linebacker the past two seasons in Oakland. But those numbers could have easily been improved had he been rushing the quarterback on a more consistent basis. Needless to say, Irvin was happy with the move.
“That was the best news I heard in a minute,” Irvin told SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I can drop in coverage. I can do it pretty good. But that’s not what I prefer to do so when I got that news that I was strictly a D-End now, that was music to my ears.”
That was just the start for Guenther. As the defensive coordinator on a team with an offensive minded head coach, Guenther had a large say in selecting defensive linemen P.J. Hall, Arden Key, and Maurice Hurst in April’s draft
Despite recording 37.0 sacks at Sam Houston State, the Raiders use of a second round pick on Hall was widely-viewed as a reach. Four months later, the selection looks brilliant as Hall has been a force from the nose tackle position.
“Well, you know, that was the question mark coming from a small school. Can he handle this level?” Guenther said of Hall. “I studied inside pass rushers for a long time, the size, the strength, the speed, all the characteristics that you’re looking for the three-technique for us on our defense. All those things match up.”
“I think the first couple days in pads where we were doing pass rush, you started to see the explosive get-off that he has and the movements that he has. And he’s strong as an ox, so I think it was really early in training camp that I realized we have a special guy here.”
With Hall playing at nose tackle, fifth rounder Maurice Hurst has spent the majority of his time in the three-technique. The First-Team All-American from Michigan would have been a top-ten pick barring a heart defect that led his fall in the draft. So far, Hurst has stayed healthy and has played as advertised. Through three preseason games, he ranks 11th among interior defenders with a 77.7 pass rusher grade.
Arguably the Raiders most impressive rookie has been defensive end Arden Key. Like Hurst, the former LSU defensive end was viewed as a top-ten talent on the field, but dropped to the third round due to character concerns.
Bruce Irvin took the rookie under his wing, and Key has stayed out of trouble ever since while being nearly unblockable throughout Raiders Training Camp. His quickness and bend off the edge brings reminiscence of Von Miller. And while he has room to improve in the run game, Key should immediately step in as an effective third down pass rusher.
Fadol Brown, Tank Carradine, and Shalique Calhoun have all impressed as well and should provide Guenther with valuable depth among his front-seven.
After the third preseason game against the Packers, the three of them gave the Raiders a lot to think about.
“[Tank] Carradine had his best game, Fadol and Calhoun can play special teams. So, there’s some really good candidates. We’re excited about it,” Gruden said Monday. He gushed about Fadol Brown in particular.
“He has quietly gone about his business,” Gruden said of Brown. “His factor grade. Forget about the sack and a half he was rewarded, I thought he closed out the Detroit Lions with the strip at the end of the game. His factor grade, pressures, penetrations, pursuit plays, was very, very good for a defensive end.”
Of course, the success of the defensive line hinges on whether Khalil Mack returns to the team. There is no doubt Key has impressed, but the idea he can replace Mack or even come close is laughable. Mack is arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL period, regardless of position.
After becoming the first player in NFL history to be selected at two positions on the 2015 Associated Press All-Pro Team, Mack was named the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. Since 2015, he leads the entire NFL with 257 pressures. But that isn’t where his value ends as he is also one of the best run-stoppers in football.
To put it simply, Mack is on track to become one of the best defensive ends in NFL history, you don’t replace a player like that.
The Raiders have the coaching and players in place to field a solid defensive line without Mack, but whether or not this unit becomes truly dominant is reliant on number 52. If he re-signs with the Silver & Black, the Raiders will boast a young and talented defensive line for years to come.