Few positions are tested in football more than the ones in the trenches.
Everything starts at the line of scrimmage, and when the offensive line clashes with the defensive line, it's an all-out battle of the fittest. With the majority of offensive and defensive linemen weighing in near - or over - 300 pounds, it's understandable to perceive the battle as merely physical, but a significant amount of mental fortitude is required as well.
Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Justin Ellis is no stranger to this mental and physical onslaught, but no player, or situation, has challenged him quite like his foot injury in 2018.
Just one game into the 2018 campaign, Ellis suffered a foot injury that caused him to miss 10 games; he wouldn't return until Week 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The time he spent away from the field was infuriating, and it tested Ellis' patience.
"This is my first time really [being tested mentally]," Ellis said Thursday following his defensive meetings during the first week of the Offseason Workout Program. "I told my mom and dad when I got home, I was really like, 'dang, I was really injured this time.' It tested me cause even when I wanted to come back I couldn't, my foot was still hurting me; and even when I came back my foot was still hurting me. I focused on it and stayed on top of my weight, and stuff like that."
Last season, I had the opportunity to join Ellis at his Alameda residence during Week 5 and sat with him as he watched the Raiders take on the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center. Perched on the edge of his couch, fingers locked beneath his chin and his elbows resting on his knees, Ellis watched the game intently, calling out the Chargers plays before they happened as if his teammates could hear him. Despite his injury, Ellis' support and love for the game hadn't diminished, it made him hungry and determined to retake the field.
The former 2014 fourth-round pick (No. 107 overall) was understandably frustrated with the circumstances of his lingering injury, but it's helped him take the next step in his development as a player.
"Last year was for sure a test, as far as my mind, just a lot of stuff," Ellis said. "I gained a lot of mental strength and like I said it was a battle test. Battle testing me, I think it was good for me. To come back from that injury and finish the season off. This offseason I just made sure I work and rehab and come back right."
He continued, "not being able to play the game that I love and be around my teammates that I grind with all summer. I'm a hard worker, so that being snatched from me was a test."
2018 wasn't all bad for Ellis, however, as he was eventually able to return to the field – even if he wasn't 100 percent – and he received a contract extension, reassuring him the Raiders believe in his skill set and future on the team.
"It feels good [to have that behind me]," He said about his injury. "It gives me something to play for. The Raiders, they trusted me, they brought me back with an extension, so I feel like I still have something to prove. I have a lot left to get better at, right now I feel like I still have something to prove."
After a 4-12 season, the Raiders are ready to turn the page and look ahead to 2019, as is Ellis, who is excited to get to work with recently hired defensive line coach Brenston Buckner.
"I like Coach Buck. He's played the game, so I'm excited to see all the stuff he's going to teach us," Ellis said. "He want us moving, that's one thing he's talking about. He wants us moving. Every D-line coach has good technique, even [Coach Mike Trgovac] last year, but like I said he just wants us active. Be active, don't be labeled to one position, like nose guard. We going to play defensive tackle, we going to play three technique, slide to the four. Whatever it is we going to be able to do it."
A lot will be expected of the defensive line this year after finishing last in the league in sacks, and hopefully a recovered Ellis can help lead a unit filled with a lot of young talent. The Raiders were missing a key cog for a majority of last season, but now with a tested mindset the big fella is ready to wreak havoc in the trenches.
Hit the practice field at Raiders HQ for the last workout session from Week 1 of the offseason program.