There's no doubt that the defensive line has pressure on them entering 2019.
We all know the unit's struggles from a season ago, and Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther knows a solution to the team's 13 total sacks needs to be resolved. Fortunately, General Manager Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden got Guenther some much-needed help during the 2019 NFL Draft.
Clelin Ferrell has impressed everyone in the early stages of his career with the Silver and Black, taking ownership of a leadership role, showcasing his talent on the practice field, and being an all-around great teammate thus far. We know he'll need to have a big rookie season, along with second-year defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. if the team is to take a step forward this year.
That being said, let's take a look at this edition of the Raiders Position Battles.
Maurice Hurst Jr.
Battle to watch:
EP: I'm really fired up to see who ends up being the Raiders base defensive ends.
Following Bruce Irvin's departure from the Silver and Black, Frostee Rucker and Arden Key were the team's primary edge rushers a year ago, but with Rucker no longer on the roster, and Key likely to be pressed for time, I'm excited to see who rises to the top of the position group.
I'll state the obvious for the 17,314 time this offseason when I say – once again – that the Raiders had no shortage of challenges getting after the quarterback a year ago, and while overall sack numbers might not be the most accurate indicator of a healthy defense, the fact remains, that metric must improve going forward.
Well, Head Coach Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock addressed that need in a big way, using three of their team's nine picks in this year's draft on defensive ends.
While the group of new players is headlined by former Clemson Tiger Clelin Ferrell, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Raiders found some unexpected production from a surprising source.
I really don't know how this one is going to shake out, and truthfully I can't wait to watch the daily grind of it all once the boys touch down in Napa.
KM: The defensive line group is relatively young across the board, and I think it'll be a pair of young guys that compete for playing time this season.
With a lot of talent on the interior, and Clelin Ferrell likely to start on the outside, that leaves one defensive end position up for grabs. I think Maxx Crosby and Arden Key will be locked into a battle all training camp. Both have similar frames at 6-foot-5, and are only about 10 pounds apart, and each offers a high motor.
Key got plenty of reps his rookie season, but I think Paul Guenther and his staff see the former LSU product as a third-down rusher; however, Key could establish a starting role during camp. Third and fourth round picks respectively, both Key and Crosby have the talent to become potential NFL starters, and the Raiders need them to live up to that potential.
Maxx Crosby, out of Eastern Michigan, might surprise a lot of people; don't let the fact he didn't attend a powerhouse school persuade you to think he's not a dog in the trenches. Hopefully, preseason football helps shed a little light on his skillset.
Whether it's Key or Crosby, the Raiders need sacks this season, and both will be asked to give 100 percent effort every time they take the field.
Storyline to follow:
EP: We're all very excited about what this rookie class of defensive ends is going to bring this year, but what has really piqued my interest is the development of the players selected in the draft a year ago.
The trio of Mo Hurst, P.J. Hall, and Arden Key were collectively thrown into the deep end of the proverbial pool last season – they made a combined 43 appearances as rookies – and while at times the numbers just weren't there for the group, the totality of that experience will hopefully pay major dividends down the road.
Just like Kolton Miller on the offensive side of the football, the expectation is that Year Two results in a marked uptick in production for the trio of now-sophomore linemen.
I understand the excitement regarding Clelin Ferrell and the rest of the Raiders rookies, trust me, I do, but don't forget about the 2018 draft class.
This year is going to be a big one for them.
KM: When it comes to the defensive line, all eyes will be on No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell.
Ferrell is a four-down player, and will be asked to carry this defense into the new era of Raiders football. How he sets the tone in training camp will be an on-going story without a doubt. From his leadership presence to his on-field contributions, everyone will be clamoring to see the former Clemson Tiger.
The defensive line needs someone to partner with Maurice Hurst Jr., and Ferrell is clearly the man for the job. From the inside to the edge, the two need to be in lockstep going forward and watching them grow together will be fun.
Whether it's on Raiders.com, on Hard Knocks, or on Twitter, there will be plenty of Ferrell storylines to go around.
Keep an eye on…
EP: Mo Hurst.
In his rookie campaign, Hurst not only became a staple along with the interior of the Raiders defensive line – he appeared in 13 games total – but established himself as the most consistent, and arguably most productive lineman on the roster to boot.
The former Michigan Wolverine led the Silver and Black with four sacks, and his 31 total tackles ranked third among all Raiders defensive linemen in 2018.
Now, a year older, a year stronger, and with a better understanding of what Paul Guenther wants out of him, I think 2019 could be a banner year for No. 73, and if all goes to plan, Hurst will be rubbing his belly a lot more on Sundays.
Mike Mayock has discussed time and again since taking the general manager job in Oakland the importance of an interior rush, and Hurst can unquestionably provide just that – to what extent though, is something I can't wait to watch develop.
KM: I think the mysterious case of Quinton Bell will be a hot topic during camp.
General Manager Mike Mayock really stumped the truck during Day Three of draft night by picking this gem out of Prairie View. The former wide receiver turned defensive end was discovered by Raiders scout Teddy Atlas, and with much persistence, he convinced Mayock to take a seventh-round flier on the 6-foot-4, 253-pound behemoth.
I'm not sure what to make of Bell – not that I'm doubting Mayock or the scouting department – but his raw athleticism and size are intriguing. We'll see how defensive line coach Brentson Buckner is able to mold the youngster.
Question you want answered by the end of training camp:
EP: It's a simple one for me – by the time the team breaks camp, and really starts gearing up for Week 1, will we feel confident that the pass rush can get after the quarterback in 2019?
I'm not saying the Raiders need to notch 100 sacks this year, but after the production last year, will it be a marked improvement?
KM: Who's starting?
Looking at the roster, you can honestly make the case for a lot of players at three positions, and I'm curious who those players will be. I think we can expect Maurice Hurst Jr. and Clelin Ferrell to be sure bets, but with so much youth and talent in the defensive line room, I genuinely can't tell you at this juncture who would serve as the best fit.
There's a lot to be discovered still and I'm curious how P.J. Hall performs during camp. He got a lot of run last year, but don't forget about veteran Johnathan Hankins, and 24-year-old Eddie Vanderdoes who we still haven't seen a lot from due to injuries.