2019 Position Review: Defensive Line

From one group of big fellas to the next, we're transitioning from the offensive line to the defensive line in our next edition of our 2019 Position Reviews.

Statistically, the defensive line took a big step forward over the past year – similar to the offensive line – and it's reflected in the numbers. There was growth all across the board and we'll get into that and more below; let's dive in.

Overview:

Following the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Raiders recognized the glaring need on their team and improving the defensive front was going to be key in 2019.

The unit finished 2018 with 13 sacks, ranking last in the NFL, and stopping the run was just as challenging also, so the team approached free agency eager to add some key pieces to the unit, particularly considering they had one of the largest cap budgets to start 2019. However, much of that money ended up being allocated to Trent Brown and the other Brown – he who shall not be named.

The Silver and Black signed defensive ends Josh Mauro and Benson Mayowa, but didn't make any "big-name" free agent splashes along the defensive line (despite guys like Trey Flowers, Ziggy Ansah, and Dee Ford being on the market). While many fans and analysts scratched their heads, Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock had a plan.

Once the big free agency surge was in the rearview mirror, all eyes shifted toward the 2019 NFL Draft, where the Raiders had no shortage of draft picks. The 2019 rookie class was loaded with defensive linemen and the Raiders knew they could capitalize on that. First, the team took the best well-rounded defensive lineman in Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 overall and then they added the biggest steal of the draft in Maxx Crosby in the fourth round (No. 106 overall). In the spirit of full transparency, I knew nothing about "Mad Maxx" prior to the Raiders selecting him, and my expectations for him were low, but I've learned two things in the past nine months: never doubt Mike Mayock and Crosby is a baller.

With their new pieces in place, the Raiders were prepared to embark on a new journey in 2019 and leave all the negativity from the previous season in the past. It didn't take long for the unit to get going and Mayowa jumped out with an early four-and-a-half sacks over the first four games. He was a bright spot that flew under the radar for much of the year, finishing with seven sacks, but the real story was the production from the rookies.

Ferrell and Crosby combined for 14.5 sacks this season and their pursuit of the quarterback and ball carrier was impressive. They stayed active in the trenches, batting down passes, and bringing relentless effort on every snap. The team finished with 32 sacks, a drastic improvement from the year before, and they finished as the eighth best defense against the run, allowing 98.1 yards per game.

Overall, this unit exceeded expectations and the future is bright for the talented young core.

Number to Know:

Forty-six.

I know Coach Gruden will love the point I'm about to make. People get too hung up on sack totals; yes, they're important, but they aren't the defining measure of a player's success.

Crosby and Ferrell combined for 46 pressures this season and were constantly disrupting quarterbacks in the pocket. Forcing signal callers to feel uncomfortable will only lead to mistakes on their end, and it shows that the duo of "Salt-N-Pepa" are making an impact on the game.

Entering 2020…

Dion Jordan – Unrestricted Free Agent

Josh Mauro – Unrestricted Free Agent

Benson Mayowa – Unrestricted Free Agent

Olsen Pierre – Unrestricted Free Agent

Maxx Crosby – Under Contract

Clelin Ferrell – Under Contract

P.J. Hall – Under Contract

Johnathan Hankins – Under Contract

Maurice Hurst – Under Contract

Arden Key – Under Contract

The Raiders have a budding young group of defensive linemen ready to take the reins going forward, but establishing veteran talent around them will surely be a priority once again in free agency this year. Mayowa, Mauro, and Hankins were all solid pieces that complemented the rookies and second-year players, but I wonder if Gruden and Mayock will try to get another premier talent in the mix.

Some of this year's top free agents are Jadeveon Clowney, Chris Jones, and Yannick Ngakoue (who is accustomed to a 4-3 defense, which is what Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther runs). We know the Raiders also need a versatile linebacker who can rush the passer, so I'm curious if guys like Dante Fowler Jr, Shaq Barrett, and Bud Dupree will be on the Raiders' short list of players they want to target.

Position Group MVP:

No one made a bigger impact all year than rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby.

Whether it was the first snap of the game or the last snap, Crosby played like he was shot out of a cannon. The former Eastern Michigan Eagle played all 16 games this year and started in 10 after finally getting comfortable with the speed of the game. He registered the second-most sacks by a rookie this season with 10, added four passes defensed and four forced fumbles, and finished with 46 tackles to his name.

The Raiders got a hell of a bargain in Crosby considering where he was selected. It's ridiculous that he isn't being mentioned in the Defensive Rookie of the Year debate more, but it'll only add to the chip on his shoulder. This young stud will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Take a look at the best gameday entertainment moments from the Raiders' 2019 season.

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