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The D.J. Reader route

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NFL: JAN 07 AFC Wild Card - Raiders at Texans Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As I wrote on Friday, the Las Vegas Raiders have a couple of nice young pass rushers in Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, but they were having consistent issues being double-teamed through all of last season. “Where can they find more help?” is a question that GM Mike Mayock has surely already been mulling for months, but grows more complicated when you consider that they want to help the two 23-year-old bookends for next season without stunting any development by signing a tree to cast a shadow.

They do want the shadow — that’s what could reduce the double-teams — but perhaps Mayock’s tree could come from the inside. I believe they call that an arboretum. Mayock needs to build an arboretum. Or perhaps an arboreader.

While defensive tackle doesn’t seem to be a major weakness for the Raiders, you wouldn’t use the word “strength” to describe it either. Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins, and PJ Hall could get the job done but an elite-level defensive tackle could get his job done and several other players on the defense at the same time. Consider that while Crosby, Ferrell, Hurst, Arden Key, etc. are all fine young prospects, Vegas doesn’t have a single star on their defense. Yet. Because defense is such a team effort, finding one player to draw the attention can end up tilting the entire field.

That’s where a defensive tackle like D.J. Reader could really be the answer to Mayock’s question.

A fifth round pick in 2016 out of Mayock’s favorite school to draft from thus far — Clemson — Reader became almost an immediate starter on the Houston Texans defense alongside Jadeveon Clowney and then eventually J.J. Watt once he was finally healthy again in 2018. That season featured a Pro Bowl appearance for Clowney, an All-Pro nod for Watt, and a Pro Bowl season for linebacker Bernadrick McKinney. Reader never got much credit but has consistently been an exceptional player sitting at the epicenter of so many credited players.

But last season was more of a breakout for Reader as he developed more of a pass rush in the absence of Clowney for the first time. He had 52 tackles, 13 QB hits (11 QB hits total in his previous three seasons), and 2.5 sacks. He’s always drawn rave reviews for his run defense and now he can potentially impact pass rush and pass defense as well. The number of defensive tackles who PFF liked more is a short list: six names, including Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Grady Jarrett, Fletcher Cox, Cam Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt.

Setting Donald apart in his own category, as he deserves, a defensive tackle of Reader’s abilities may now be looking at an average annual value on his contract of $12.5 million if he’s viewed as Linval Joseph or $17 million if he’s viewed as Cox or Jarrett. Reader has only 6.5 career sacks, so I can’t imagine he’ll be propped up as the next Cox but he could convince teams that he’s not far off from being the next Jarrett. Would a team be willing to pay $16 million per year for Reader? Do they have concerns that because he was the epicenter of a talented defense, that he was the one being aided the most?

It’s a risk, though it is one that the Raiders can afford to take if they want to, given that with $50 million in cap space (and eventually growing), Mayock can make at least a couple of big moves in free agency. And I’d expect him to. Mayock and Jon Gruden look like they’re going to make a big effort to improve on the 31st ranked defense by DVOA and while Reader doesn’t appear to directly impact a 30th-ranked pass defense these things tend to fall like dominoes.

I had previously profiled safety Anthony Harris as a potential under the radar solution for the back of the defense. Could Reader be the guy upfront?