Last season the Raiders struggled to find even two consistently solid starters on the interior defensive line. Now it’s the overcrowded position on the team. There was a logjam at the position coming out of training camp and things got even more jammed with the addition of Corey Liuget on Sunday. And in that room, they should all be wondering if come the start of the season they’ll be in a Raiders uniform or not.
The primary difference this time around is the uncertainty appears to be due to a glut of talent rather than a lack of it.
The ironic thing is the one guy who probably has the least to worry about was the guy who wasn’t even on the team to start last season. That’s Johnathan Hankins.
Hankins was signed off the street after week one of last season and started the rest of the way. He was the best interior defender the Raiders had, so it says a lot that Gruden has been calling him the Raiders most improved player. From there things get a bit more shaky.
Hankins was brought in primarily because of the injury to Justin Ellis which had him placed on partial season IR last season. Now just a year since signing a new 3-year deal with the team, Ellis will be sweating it out on Friday when the cuts come down.
The big nose tackle hasn’t been seen from much of lately and his status is a bit uncertain for the opener.
“Jelly hurt his knee,” Gruden said Sunday. “We think he’ll be back hopefully for the season opener, but he’s out.”
Even if he returns, it’s no lock that it will be for the Raiders.
The former starter has some serious competition for his job this year. The top competition could be coming from 6-5, 340-pound undrafted rookie Anthony Rush who has been dominating the preseason. Add 2018 second round pick P.J. Hall and fifth round pick Maurice Hurst and who loses out in this?
That’s to say nothing of veteran tackle Ethan Westbrooks who has looked good this preseason. Rounding out the group is Eddie Vanderdoes and Gabe Wright, both of whom are forgotten altogether due to injuries costing them all or most of camp with the competition going on ahead of them.
It’s a tough sell to keep even five interior linemen, especially with Josh Mauro moving inside on third and long situations. And they have six or seven who have a viable case to make the roster. Most of whom also no safe bet either for the same reason.
Liuget, even this close to the start of the season, adds legit talent to the group, much like Hankins did when he was signed last season.
“We signed Corey Liuget, we’re really excited about that,” said Gruden. “We think he’s an excellent football player. Thrilled to have him.”
“Liuget is a legitimate 3-technique, he can also be a penetrator as a nose, he can play heavy on the center in your subpackages, your three-down alignments, he’s smart, he’s got 25 career sacks, so he gives us another veteran player with inside pass rush ability. He can bat down passes, plays with a motor. We’re thrilled to have him. We’re going to try to get him in great shape and get him ready as soon as possible.”
Hurst is probably a decent bet to make it, but the fact that he keeps seeing the field deep in preseason games suggests the team still wants to see more from him. PJ Hall has shown up some of late after missing time with injury, but that doesn’t mean he will win a roster spot. I mean even as a recent second round pick, how do you justify keeping him if it means cutting a talent like Anthony Rush has shown himself to be?
Keep in mind keeping and cutting are not the only two options here. With many of these guys, trades is always an option. Especially with the second-year players like Hurst and Hall. They are young — which means potential — and cheap with still three years left on their rookie contracts. Getting some compensation in a trade would ease the sting from losing a good player. And they would get no trade bites for Jelly and his $4.5 million contract.
These are just things to keep in mind as we approach the day of reckoning. You know the guys on that interior line are thinking about it.