Linebacker Bruce Irvin and Defensive End Khalil Mack
In 2015, defensive end Khalil Mack emerged as a premier pass rusher, finishing his sophomore campaign with 15 total sacks, a trip to the Pro Bowl, and the distinction of being the first player named First-Team All-Pro at two positions.
He was a one-man wrecking crew throughout the season – emphasis on one man.
As dominant as Mack was throughout the season, a true complement to him coming off the other edge didn't really materialize. Mack led the team with his aforementioned 15 sacks, but after him, the player with the most sacks in Silver and Black was linebacker Malcolm Smith with four. Rookie defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. established himself as the season wore on, but injury prevented him from really emerging as the secondary option to Mack over the course of 16 games.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jack Del Rio recognized the need to find another pass rusher to alleviate some pressure from Mack, so the team signed Bruce Irvin in March.
While Irvin is listed as a linebacker, he's demonstrated that he's incredibly versatile throughout his career, and FOX NFL analyst Kirk Morrison believes that adding a player with Irvin's skillset will pay huge dividends for the Silver and Black.
"I think now, when you look at Bruce coming over, he's a versatile guy," said Morrison. "He's not just an edge rusher. He can play a little linebacker, defensive end. I think when you look at the Raiders in general from a defensive line/linebacker perspective, you're seeing a football team that is multiple. You're going to see some guys in different spots now that can make the other offense kind of guess, 'okay, what are they going to do next?'"
Morrison also thinks that adding Irvin to the mix – while adding another level of versatility to the defense – will increase the team depth, particularly on the defensive line.
"You mention Bruce, but I think it's now the added depth to that defensive line, those pass rushers, because yes, you have those front-line guys, but now you're going to have guys – throwing in [defensive end] Jihad Ward, linebacker] Shilique Calhoun, Mario Edwards Jr. now – you're throwing in different guys that can add to the depth of this unit," Morrison said. "The second unit is just as good as the first unit, but that's what I see right now is the increased depth, not just in the defensive line, but throughout the defense as well, especially with what they're doing in the secondary."
The Raiders have high hopes heading into the 2016 season – Del Rio has said as much on multiple occasions – and while Morrison thinks it's good to have big expectations, he also made sure to stress the importance of embracing the grind of the NFL season and not looking ahead at any point.
"Obviously, you look forward to saying at the end of the year, 'hey, this is where we want to be,' but it's really [about] the foundation, and that's training camp, and that's winning Week One which is something the Raiders have struggled to do the last couple years." Morrison said. "I just look at [the Raiders] – starting off getting the foundation set in training camp, winning Week One and take it from there."