Make no mistake, trading Khalil Mack was the dumbest move in Raiders franchise history. It’s like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White or Derrick Thomas getting traded while in their respective primes. Sure, you can talk about how statistically bad the Oakland Raiders defense has been with Mack but in 2016, the Raiders went 12-4 because Mack made plays to seal games after quarterback Derek Carr threw game-winning touchdown passes.
But now the question is do the Raiders have enough on defense to win now?
Well, with Jon Gruden coaching a healthy Derek Carr and his fully loaded offense, they might. But of course, Carr has to stay healthy and that means 2018 1st-round pick Kolton Miller has to protect Carr’s blind side well but that’s for another article. A lot of things that are on the if side for the defense have to go the Raiders’ way for them to win now.
It all starts with P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst as every defense needs an interior pass-rush. Mack overcame a lack of an interior rush and secondary to become 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But this year, the Raiders just might have that much-needed interior rush. Hurst is the highest graded college interior defensive lineman in Pro Football Focus’ brief history and Hall is a 6’1”, 310-pound, 4.7 40 running, 750-pound squatting athletic freak. Both have looked the part over the course of their first training camp and preseason too.
Bruce Irvin and Arden Key
Bruce Irvin is a great football player as shown by his landing at No. 85 on the NFL Top-100 list. He can cover, play the run, and rush the passer but he hasn’t proven he can be a primary edge-rusher. He looked like he was going to be that guy with eight sacks his rookie season. But he has yet to reach 10 sacks in his seven years and barely got back to eight again last year. However, Irvin did show he is capable with six sacks in the second half of last season.
Arden Key’s talent rushing off the edge rivaled Myles Garrett’s in college in 2016. But off-the-field stuff and injuries got in the way in 2017 so he dropped to the third round. He obviously needs to show the talent that got him 12.0 sacks for LSU in 2016. Key didn’t play much this preseason but did flash it when he did. If Hall and Hurst answer the interior-rush question, Irvin and Key don’t have to be as great as Mack to produce on the edges.
The secondary should improve this year with the addition of cornerback Rashaan Melvin to play on the other side of Gareon Conley. Melvin ranked third last season with 23.6 percent of his targeted passes defensed or intercepted according to Pro Football Focus. Gruden brought in a few vets that aren’t impressive so how the Raiders secondary plays will depend mainly on the emergence of Conley and safety Karl Joseph.
As two of the last three 1st-round picks for the Raiders, that talent needs to show up. If they don’t, look for Gruden replace general manager Reggie McKenzie’s picks with more undistinguished veterans. The good news is they’re both healthy now and have looked pretty good this preseason. But if they start is even a question now as Gruden is playing his games with the lineup.
Of course, the way to replace a talent like Mack is to make the defense better overall. But whether or not the Raiders have done that to this point is anyone’s guess. Most of the free agents added to the defense are average and it looks like the players they drafted for it are good.
Then you have defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, known for his blitzing schemes and keeping the point total of his opposition down as the HUGE upgrade to Ken Norton Jr. But But every great defense needs that one guy every offense has to account for. The Raiders do have a few young guys on that defense that could emerge into one of those guys.
But since Gruden and Carr are leading the offense, the Raiders don’t need a statistically great defense. They just have to make plays to protect the lead Carr gets them late games.
Who’s going to do that in Mack’s absence?
That’s the team’s biggest question.
We hope to have an answer after the Raiders face the Rams Monday.
How do you expect the Raiders defense to perform compared to last season?
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About the same