In our ongoing series exploring the current state of the Raiders roster, Hayden Nadolny looks at the efensefensive line and how Oakland may add some spark with free agents.
If the Raiders defense is going to improve in 2018, they need a massive spike in production along their defensive line. Khalil Mack can’t do it all, and while there are some nice rotational pieces within this group’s personnel, they still need to find some more impact players to help Mack out.
The 2016 defensive player of the year had another elite season in 2017, notching 10.5 sacks and being a complete roadblock against the run. It is amazing that Mack has been able to deliver such impressive numbers despite having relatively little support around him, not to mention being stuck in a scheme that left players playing with more confusion than certainty. Under Paul Guenther, Mack should have more one-on-one opportunities to create havoc on the opposing quarterback. Mack is entering the final year of his contract, though it is anticipated he could have a new long term deal in place as early as the start of free agency, per league sources.
Irvin is a true ‘tweener. His strengths clearly lie in his pass rushing abilities, but he is too small to play as a defensive end full time. Jon Gruden has mentioned Irvin as an edge rusher, so he’ll most likely be at the defensive end position in sub-packages, whilst standing up as a Sam linebacker when in base. Given that sub-packages make up roughly 75% of defensive snaps in any given game, I have classified Irvin for the purposes of this analysis, as a DE. Given Irvin’s lack of size at the position, the Raiders will need to schematically help him in the running game to ensure he doesn’t get exposed for big gains. Gruden mentioned Irvin played through a back injury early last season, which may have explained his early season lack of production. Given the lack of pure pass rushing talent in free agency, Irvin will be counted on to provide a solid rushing option to help free up Mack one-on-one.
Mario Edwards Jr
After an injury plagued 2016, Edwards was primed for a breakdown 2017. With three sacks in the first four games of the year, Edwards seemed to have arrived, only to become the invisible man for the remainder of the season, notching just half a sack the final 12 games. By no means was Edwards terrible, but he was not the impact interior lineman the Raiders envisioned him being going into the season. With some support around him, Edwards will be leaned on as a solid role player along the defensive line.
Hester was a pleasant surprise along the interior of the Raiders’ D-Line. The seventh-round draft pick played 14 games as a rookie and started one. Although he didn’t record a sack, he recorded plenty of pressures on the quarterback. In Guenther’s single gap scheme, Hester should find his niche as a solid rotational lineman.
A Las Vegas Raiders Report favorite early on, Vanderdoes looked like a beast as he feasted on Jack Conklin against Tennessee, only to do a whole lot of ‘not much’ the rest of the season. He injured his ACL in the final game of the year, which will likely result in him missing a large chunk of the off-season program. He could be a candidate to be placed on the PUP list once training camp begins if he’s not healthy by then, which will give the Raiders some flexibility with his roster spot.
Ward has been one of the biggest disappointments of the Reggie McKenzie era. A second round pick in 2016, Ward has struggled seemingly both on and off the field as a Raider. This past year he was a healthy inactive for many games, and when he did get his opportunity on the field, former head coach Jack Del Rio said he got his opportunity because no one else was healthy. Ward clashed with both Del Rio and former defensive line coach Jethro Franklin last year. If he doesn’t show something this off-season and pre-season, Ward will most likely be released from his contract come the final roster cuts.
Expected to build on from a solid 2016, Latham was another big disappointment. He received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s doping program, and only appeared in three games for the season. He will get his chance this off-season, but he is up against it to make the 53-man roster.
Impending free agents:
After a hand injury plagued him throughout 2016, Autry’s 2017 form spiked significantly. He appeared in all 16 games (starting three) and recorded a career high 5 sacks, along with seven passes defensed. Autry is also fairly solid against the run, which enables him to be a true three-down lineman. His quick first move is a perfect fit in Guenther’s single gap scheme. He will cost roughly $5-6 million to keep in silver and black next year. Of the Raiders free agents, he should be a priority.
“Big Jelly” Ellis had his best year as a pro in 2017, fortunate for him seeing as it was a contract year. He appeared in all 16 games (starting 14) and more than doubled his season high tackle total (48 tackles in 2017, previous best was 22 in 2015). Ellis’ best role is as a space-eating 2-gapping 0-tech. McKenzie would like to keep Ellis, but his role in Guenther’s scheme is limited given the Raiders will be primarily a single-gap D-line. Hence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ellis plays elsewhere in 2018.
Free agency targets:
Gruden has emphasised the need to allow Mack and Irvin to be put in advantageous positions to attack the quarterback off the edge. The best way to free up these guys if not schematically, is to improve the interior personnel. The Raiders have tried doing this through the draft without much success over the past couple of years. Ezekiel Ansah and Demarcus Lawrence would have been top targets of the Raiders, but Ansah has been franchised tagged and Lawrence will likely be tagged shortly as well. Muhammad Wilkerson was recently released by the Jets and could be a target, though his production has waned since he received a big contract going into the 2016 season. If the Raiders would like a space eater in the middle of the line, Bennie Logan and Dontari Poe are viable alternatives to re-signing Ellis.
Richardson seems to have been linked to the Raiders every off-season the past few years, without anything eventuating. Could this be the year? He is stout against the run, and despite not having many sacks (just 2.5 the past two years), he is adept at getting pressure on the quarterback. He would be the perfect player to compliment the edge rushers on the Raiders defensive line.
Clayborn had a career year in Atlanta (9.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles), priming himself for a big contract this month. The Falcons lined him up at defensive end in their base package, while moving him inside in sub-packages. He is exactly the type of player the Raiders should be looking for, and given his versatility, he is one of very few defensive lineman who can be a true ‘plug and play’ signing. With the Raiders, Clayborn would rotate with Edwards and (if he re-signs) Autry. He has missed just three games since 2015.
SLEEPER – William Hayes
He might be 32, but Hayes has been a model of consistency throughout his 10-year career. He can line up both on the edge and go inside on passing downs. He missed six games with a back injury in 2017, but otherwise only missed two games since 2014. Given that the Dolphins (Hayes’ 2017 team) have money tied up in Robert Quinn, Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake along the D-Line, Hayes will likely be a solid rotational prospect who will hit the market simply because their current team can’t afford him. I wouldn’t count on Hayes being a full-time starter this late in his career, but he could be a solid rotational piece who could get 5 sacks as a rotational pass rusher.