Building a Super Bowl-caliber defensive line is one of the most underrated facets of team-building in the modern NFL.
While everyone is busy talking about the Chiefs’ high-powered passing attack and the 49ers’ elite offensive scheme, many are overlooking that neither team would be in the Super Bowl without their awesome defensive lines.
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock seem to understand the value of having a dominant defensive line, as they invested heavily into improving along the line last offseason and recently brought in the well-renowned Rod Marinelli to coax out some extra production from the unit.
It feels like things are relatively set for the Silver and Black along the edges, with rookies Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell penciled in as starters for next season. But along the interior defensive line, an upgrade or two could immediately benefit the entire defense.
Currently on roster
Maurice Hurst (UFA in 2022)
P.J. Hall (UFA in 2022)
Johnathan Hankins (UFA in 2021)
Quietly, Maurice Hurst was one of the better gap-shooting 3-techniques in the league last season. He’s a productive pass rusher with a quick first-step and great hands, but he leaves much to be desired as a run stopper and doesn’t handle double teams all that well on run plays.
Hurst is valuable to the Raiders as a pass rushing specialist, but limiting his role might be best going forward.
Johnathan Hankins was serviceable as a starting 1-tech last year, and he’s sort of the antithesis of Hurst; a run-stuffing gap clogger without any pass rushing upside. Nobody would bat an eye if the Raiders upgraded at Hankins’ position, but nose tackle isn’t a clear need at this point.
P.J. Hall brings solid rotational depth to the 3-tech spot behind Hurst, but he’s more or less the epitome of your average undersized interior lineman, standing at only 6-feet.
Each of these three is worthy of being in the defensive line rotation, but not necessarily deserving of a penciled in starting spot going forward.
2020 Raiders free agents
Jordan is really the only free agent of note on the interior line, which is quite funny considering that he’d been utilized as a defensive end for all of his career until joining the Raiders midway through the season.
Jordan was used in a stand up 3-tech role most often in passing situations, with Hurst kicking down to the 1-tech role and Benson Mayowa and Crosby rushing from the edge.
The Raiders will likely consider bringing Jordan back if he is willing to sign a modest deal and they’re confident that he’ll stay out of trouble in Las Vegas. But Jordan will be 30 in March, and he’s not suddenly going to become the interior answer this team needs while strictly playing a pass rushing specialist role.
Top free agent iDL
Chris Jones is the name most Raider fans want to see the team shell out big money for. After all, snatching him from the rival Chiefs would be extra valuable since signing him would simultaneously bolster the Raiders and weaken a bitter rival.
Jones is a beast on the interior who can capably start at nose tackle or defensive tackle. He needs to be accounted for on every play and often commands double teams that would open up one-on-one opportunities for the rest of the Raiders defensive line. Plus, he’s only 25 years old, so he could grow alongside the Raiders other youthful linemen over the years.
At this point, Spotrac projects his market value at $19.2 million per season and thinks he’ll command a five-year contract at said price. While that would be a hefty price to pay, Jones is the one guy on this list who is truly deserving of that kind of payday.
D.J. Reader is a massive nose tackle who is underrated outside of Houston, but has become one of the better lane cloggers in football. He’s 26 and likely looking for a massive deal that the Texans may not be able to dish out. A contract worth $10-12 million annually could get things done.
Javon Hargrave is another 26-year-old nose tackle entering his prime who is set to cash in on the open market. And signing Shelby Harris would present another opportunity to upgrade the 3-tech spot while weakening a division rival.
Leonard Williams is a hotly debated name among Raider fans, but he honestly isn’t that much of an upgrade over the incumbent Hankins, who will provide 80 percent of Williams’ value at a fraction of the cost.
Jones is the guy at the very top of my free agent wishlist for the Raiders. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do everything to pry him loose from Kansas City’s clutches.
Other free agent iDL of note
This list showcases just how deep the 2020 interior defensive line class is in free agency. There are a lot of guys on this list who are former stars such as Suh, Wolfe, Reed, Dareus and Brockers, that are on the backside of their careers.
The one name on this list who has a case to be paid top-end money is Jordan Phillips, the Buffalo Bills defensive tackle who racked up 10 sacks this year. Despite his big numbers, however, Phillips actually looked pretty underwhelming on tape throughout most of the season, which goes to show that counting stats never tell the full story.
If the Raiders don’t snag any of the guys listed as top free agents, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them to take a one-year flier on one of these seasoned veterans.
Day 1 targets — Derrick Brown, Javon Kinlaw
Day 2 targets — Leki Fotu, Neville Gallimore, Larrell Murchison, Ross Blacklock, Justin Madubuike
Day 3 targets — McTelvin Agim, Josiah Coatney, Benito Jones, Darrion Daniels
Derrick Brown and Javon Kinlaw have both solidified themselves as top 15 picks throughout the draft process thus far, and there isn’t much other top flight interior line talent available in the 2020 draft. That has made Kinlaw a popular sleeper pick for the Raiders at No. 12; a move that I’d support wholeheartedly if the team doesn’t sign Jones in free agency.
If the team looks to wait until the third round, Utah’s Leki Fotu may not be available, but Neville Gallimore and Larell Murchison both could become capable rookie starters quickly.
As far as late-round guys go, none of the prospects available would provide legitimate upgrades to the Raiders incumbent trio. But Josiah Coatney is a name to keep in mind as a Day 3 sleeper who could surprise people at the next level.