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2021 Position Battle: It's going to be a boom-or-bust type of season for the Raiders defensive line

Have any of you ever heard the phrase "When you hit rock bottom, the only way you can go is up"?

It's time the Raiders defensive line starts trending upward, which is what I'm banking on considering the changes made to this position group this offseason.

The highest the Raiders have ranked in the league in sacks the past four seasons has been 25th. Last season, the Raiders had the fourth lowest sack percentage (3.5 percent) and tied for the eighth lowest amount of quarterback hits (77).

To keep a long story short, the Raiders need to get after the quarterback.

The group that new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has to work with may be the best collective defensive line the Raiders have had in awhile. The organization recognized the need to have more depth and speed at the position and didn't waste any time attaining it. They began by acquiring defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue – who was drafted by Bradley when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars – is coming off his fourth consecutive eight-plus sack season. Ngakoue will be joined by his former Maryland teammate and good friend Quinton Jefferson, who is coming off a career year for the Buffalo Bills.

The Silver and Black added another high profile signing in Solomon Thomas, who came from the San Francisco 49ers. Thomas was the third pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft and one of two players on the Raiders active roster who have played in a Super Bowl. The move for Thomas from the bay to the desert was much needed for Thomas – who had the early portion of his career hampered by injuries and the mental anguish and depression he suffered from losing his sister. He will also be moving back to the three-technique tackle position that he excelled at at Stanford.

"Just being around here with the guys has been awesome," Thomas said on getting acclimated with his new team during OTAs. "I've been trying to soak it up all because I know in a second it could be gone. I experienced that last year and it's really had me really take advantage and soak all this up because quickly I faced the fact that I'm not playing football. I don't want to be there. I want to play football. I want to play for a long time and I want to be a great player in this league, a great player.

"I'm just happy to be back on the field, be around teammates, be in the locker room and getting to play the game I love."

As for the returning defensive linemen, Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell need to put themselves in a situation to have their best training camps imaginable. These two core pieces that were drafted together in 2019 may be the most imperative on the line to guide the rest of the team to success.

Crosby has been the most dominant player on the Raiders defensive line since his arrival, with 17 sacks since being drafted out of Eastern Michigan. Throughout OTAs and minicamp, he has been very vocal and is establishing himself as a leader of the line. Ferrell has also proven that he is the future of the Raiders defensive line with his ability to create pressure on the quarterback and his run-stopping abilities. The only thing that has stopped Ferrell since being taken with the No. 4 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft has been injuries. With his number changed back to No. 99 and having spent the offseason bulking up, this may the season Ferrell begins to separate himself in the NFL and get closer to his ceiling as a lineman.

Ngakoue has big expectations out of his two new teammates for this upcoming season.

"I think that Maxx and myself are the best duo that's going to come hit the scene," Ngakoue said during minicamp. "I'm already putting that out there. I feel like the NFL has kind of shied away from that, and that's cool, but Maxx is a hard worker. He's a guy that's putting in the work."

"[Clelin Ferrell's] a guy that's going to be super, super effective. I love that he can play a five-technique, he can also play a three-technique. And like I said, those are guys I want to push. Those are guys I want to see be great. He has all the intangibles and abilities to be a special player and he needs to show that this year and he will."

The Raiders also have two rookies to watch out for during training camp that could definitely work themselves into the rotation in Malcolm Koonce and Darius Stills. Koonce, the Raiders third-round pick out of Buffalo, has amazing size for an NFL edge rusher at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and has already drawn comparisons to his teammate Yannick Ngakoue from General Manager Mike Mayock after he was drafted. Stills is an undrafted free agent from West Virginia, where he was the 2020 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Both linemen have already received rave reviews from coaches and teammates since their arrival to Las Vegas.

"Obviously, him being a MAC guy, I was somewhat familiar with him and I was happy we drafted him," Crosby said about rookie Koonce. "He came in, he's a super quiet, humble kid. But I like his personality. He wants to come here and be the best player he can possibly be. That's all you can ask for as a rookie. You try to learn, try to get as healthy as you possibly can to try to get up to speed. He's been really good. I think he has a really bright future and I'm excited to play with him.

"I don't really evaluate guys until we put the pads on, but a guy who I like a lot is Darius Stills, an undrafted rookie from West Virginia," said Clelin Ferrell. "Real, real good dude but he got a lot of twitch. He played three-technique. He got a lot of twitch. You can just tell in the movements when we on drills and stuff like that. He got a little something to him, so I like his game a little bit."

Bold Predictions

I know the headline of this position battle may be a bit daunting, but the Raiders truly have no excuse but to be better this year. While the defense still has to prove themselves collectively, it starts upfront with the defensive line and creating pressure on the quarterback. Adding Ngakoue to the Raiders makes it very difficult to double team Crosby the way many offenses did last season after his 10 sack rookie season. Around the NFL writer Marc Sessler made Crosby as his choice from the Raiders in's article of every team's player most likely to make their first Pro-Bowl this season. I agree with that. Crosby is continuing to come into his own as a player and the depth that has been added to the rest of the defensive line only helps Crosby's chances of achieving star status as a young, elite pass rusher in this league.

The most underrated player on this defensive line that will help morale the unit is veteran Johnathan Hankins. Hankins is going into his ninth NFL season and his fourth with the Raiders. Big Hank has played all but one game since becoming a Raider and has had some of his best career seasons with the team. The former Ohio State standout should not only be in store for another solid year plugging the middle but will also help with the development of the younger defensive linemen around him.

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