Linebacker Malcolm Smith
Malcolm Smith has seen a team evolve from a decent team to a good team to a great team firsthand.
In 2011 – his first season as a member of the Seattle Seahawks – the team won seven games. The next season they went 11-5 and earned a trip to the postseason, and then in 2013, they handily beat the Denver Broncos 43-8 to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Smith joined the Silver and Black prior to the start of the 2015 season, and while the Raiders won just seven games, heading into 2016, Smith sees a surge in the team – the same type of surge he saw as a member of the Seahawks.
"Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the quarterback position, finding consistency there and I think that's something Derek has shown – that he's more than capable of doing – and I feel the pieces around him are going to come together," Smith told Mike Keith and Bill Polian on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "It's just about building that chemistry as a group, having some of those things to fall back on as far as the matchups that we had in Seattle. I think we have a lot of experienced guys who knows what it takes to win, and we're going to put the pressure on each other to be the team we want to be."
During Smith's time in the Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks built up a formidable defense headlined by players like Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, but after the Raiders' draft and offseason acquisitions, the former USC Trojan believes that the Silver and Black could be on their way to building a stout defensive unit of their own.
"Just starting on the back end as far as defense goes, [cornerback] Sean Smith, [safety] Reggie Nelson, [safety] Karl Joseph; Sean's got great length, probably the biggest corner in the NFL," Smith said. "Reggie is coming off a great year in Cincinnati. He's got a wealth of knowledge and Karl is a young player. We expect him to be kin of a big, physical presence back there, even though he's not a big guy. We expect him to have an impact hitting guys and making plays on the ball. Up front, obviously, adding [linebacker] Bruce [Irvin], [defensive lineman] Jihad Ward is impressive – watching him, our second round pick. Ben Heeney is coming along as a linebacker. I think we're doing to do really well."
However, as impressive as those Seattle defenses were, Smith says he has never seen a player like defensive end Khalil Mack – a versatile defender who has the ability to make life miserable for opposing offensive lines from myriad positions along the defensive front.
"I've never seen anybody like Khalil Mack to be honest with you," Smith told Keith and Polian. "He's kind of a one of a kind as far as my football knowledge goes, and my time being in the NFL. Even in college, I don't think I played against a player as kind of dominant as Khalil is in a one-on-one setting, even in a two-on-one setting. He's a big part of our defense, and obviously, I feel like he's one of a kind."
While the team's defense undoubtedly improved as 2015 wore on, Smith did acknowledge that at times the unit "took our lumps," but he's optimistic that a year of experience and cohesion will pay huge dividends as the Silver and Black try to return to the postseason for the first time since 2002.
"We learned what we liked to do, what the coaching staff feels is best for us, and trying to put the guys in the best position, so I feel like just another year of growth as a group, trying to get a good nucleus of guys together, and finding pieces and finding what they do well," Smith said. "I feel like we've taken a big step, especially in the offseason, just learning, increasing our football knowledge. That was one thing we had in Seattle, was really high football IQ as a team, and that's something that [Head Coach Del Rio] is preaching and obviously [defensive coordinator] Ken Norton [Jr.] as well, and [offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave] so I think that's going to take us to the playoffs. That'll be the difference maker in our season this year."