Oakland Raiders' Position Battles: Defensive Line

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OTHER POSITION BATTLES:Wide Receivers, Cornerbacks, Offensive Line

The 2015 season was one of quantitative improvement across the board for the Oakland Raiders, and the defensive line was no exception.

After struggling to get after the quarterback in 2014, totaling just 22 sacks, the Silver and Black's pass rush came alive in 2015, finishing the season with 38 sacks in total. A large reason for that uptick in production was the emergence of defensive end Khalil Mack, but from top to bottom, the position group was an improved one from the year previous.

Now, heading into 2016, defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., will not have a shortage of options to get after the quarterback, so as the team prepares for the start of Training Camp 2016, let's take a closer look at the members of the defensive line and how the group is shaping up.

Defensive Lineman – Denico Autry – Third Season – Mississippi State

Autry is hoping to build off of a solid 2015 season that saw him start the final seven games for the Silver and Black. Not only was Autry a solid contributor along the defensive line – totaling 29 tackles and three sacks – he also was a force to be reckoned with on special teams, leading the entire NFL with three blocked kicks on special teams.

While Autry didn't participate in a majority of the Offseason Workout Program, Head Coach Jack Del Rio is optimistic that the entire roster – Autry included – will be ready to go when the team reports to Training Camp 2016.

With impressive size and a clear knack for finding the football, Autry figures to play a key role on the interior line in 2016.

Defensive Tackle – Justin Ellis – Third Season – Louisiana Tech

After missing some games early in the season due to injury, "Jelly" delivered a quality sophomore campaign in Silver and Black.

He finished the season appearing in 12 games – making nine starts – totaling 22 tackles and two passes defensed.

While his stats may not jump off the stat sheet, Ellis – along with fellow tackle Dan Williams – wil be asked to eat up space and stuff the run, and heading into 2016, all indications are that he will be doing just that for the Raiders' defensive line.

Defensive End – Mario Edwards Jr. – Second Season – Florida State

As his rookie season wore on, Edwards emerged and lived up the hype as a second-round draft pick.

At season's end he had appeared in 14 games for the Silver and Black, making 10 starts in the process, and while he totaled just two sacks, he certainly made his presence felt along the Raiders' defensive front.

Edwards did miss the final two games of the season with what was later described to be a neck sprain, but he was able to participate in the Offseason Workout Program and will be ready to go when the team reports to Training Camp 2016.

The Florida State-product showed that he has the ability to be a disruptor along the defensive line, and seeing how Norton utilizes him on a consistent basis will be something to keep an eye on this season.

Defensive End – Branden Jackson – Rookie – Texas Tech

After playing his college football at Texas Tech, Jackson signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent this offseason.

The good news for him? He'll have the opportunity to watch and learn from Khalil Mack and the rest of a very talented Raiders' defensive line. The bad news? The depth of the line will make it difficult for him to find a plethora of opportunities to flash, so once he gets to Training Camp 2016, he's going to have to make the most of the opportunities that he's given.

Defensive Lineman – Drew Iddings – Rookie – South Dakota

During his career in South Dakota, Iddings appeared in 46 games and was productive as well.

He signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent, and he'll have to make an early impression on the coaching staff in the opportunities that he's given to make sure his career as a Raider is elongated.

Defensive Tackle – Darius Latham – Rookie – Indiana

Coming out of high school, Latham was heavily recruited out of high school, but he eventually elected to stay close to home and become a Hoosier.

While he boasts prototypical NFL size, Latham will be in the same position as many of the other undrafted free agents, and will have to flash early on in training camp to make sure he extends his run as a Raider.

Defensive End – Khalil Mack – Third Season – University of Buffalo

Where to begin with No. 52?

Over the course of 16 games in 2015 he put together one of the most impressive seasons of any defensive player in the NFL. When all was said and done, Mack tallied 15 sacks, earned a berth to the Pro Bowl, and was the first player in league history to be named First-Team All-Pro at two positions.

Mack established that he's one of the premier pass rushers in the league, and heading into his third season, both he and Norton believe that the next step for him in his development is just consistency.

"We expect him [Mack] to play at that level all the time," said Norton. "The really good players know how to make players around them better. It can't just be Khalil. The group, as a whole, has to take the same leap that Khalil does. Khalil has to learn how to bring everybody with him."

Images of the Raiders defensive line at work during the 2016 offseason program.

If Mack can perform at that high level for the duration of a full season, he'll be nearly unstoppable and it would pay absolutely huge dividends for the Raiders' defense as a whole.

Defensive Tackle – Stacy McGee – Fourth Season – Oklahoma

McGee quietly put together a solid 2015 season for the Raiders, appearing in all 16 games and finishing the year with a career-high 27 tackles.

Heading into 2016 can the former Oklahoma Sooner develop into more than just a rotational player along the line? Only time will tell, but with the wealth of talent the Raiders have stacked along the defensive front, it could be hard for him to find an increased role on the team's defense.

Defensive End – Damontre Moore – Fourth Season – Texas A&M

After stops in Miami and New York, Head Coach Jack Del Rio and the Raiders' staff are hoping that a change of scenery will do a lot of good for the former Texas A&M Aggie.

"He [Moore] is a guy that a couple of years ago when he came out of Texas A&M, I was familiar with," said Del Rio. "I think he's got some of the length and athleticism and natural pass rush ability that we covet."

If Moore could earn a role as a rotational player for the Silver and Black's defensive front, it would benefit the entire unit, particularly with how Norton will likely mix and match his defensive fronts and show opposing offenses multiple looks featuring a variety of personnel.

Defensive Tackle – Leon Orr – Rookie – Florida

Orr spent the first 12 games of his rookie season on the Practice Squad before being promoted to the active roster prior to the Raiders' Week 14 matchup with the Denver Broncos.

The former Florida Gator finished the season with five total tackles, and now he has have aspirations of making the team's 53-man roster in 2016. The depth along the Raiders' defensive line has been well documented, so Orr will have to put his best foot forward when the team gets to training camp if he wants to see an uptick in playing time.

Defensive End – Greg Townsend, Jr. – Rookie – USC

There likely isn't a rookie who understands the mystique and history of the Raiders more than Townsend.

His father, Greg Townsend, Sr., played for the Silver and Black for 12 seasons, earning four All-Pro nods and winning Super Bowl XVIII with the organization. Now, it's his son's turn to try to create his own legacy as a Raider.

After playing his college football at the University of Southern California, Townsend signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent in May.

The first few weeks – and two preseason games – will serve as a critical tryout for Townsend if he hopes to follow in his father's footsteps.

Defensive Lineman – Jihad Ward – Rookie – Illinois

The Raiders selected Ward in the second round (No. 44 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft, and since he arrived in Northern California the rookie has been impressive.

The imposing lineman has consistently flashed with impressive plays throughout the Offseason Workout Program, and he figures to be a key part of the team's defensive rotation as the season wears on.

Ward is an exciting prospect, so be sure to stay tuned to see Norton utilizes him throughout his rookie campaign.

Defensive Tackle – Dan Williams – Seventh Season – Tennessee

After spending the first five years of his career with the Arizona Cardinals, Williams joined the Silver and Black prior to the start of the 2015 season and enjoyed a good first year as a Raider, appearing in all 16 games and setting a career high with 34 tackles.

Similarly to Justin Ellis, Williams will be asked to be stout in the run game and push the opposing offensive line backwards, and there's no reason to think he won't be doing just that in 2016.

Keep An Eye On…

Where will the complementary pass rush come from this season?

Not only does Norton have the luxury of utilizing Khalil Mack, he also has a plethora of other options to get to the quarterback from along the defensive line at his disposal.

From Jihad Ward to Mario Edwards Jr. and linebacker Bruce Irvin, Norton will be able to be multiple in his defense, and that bodes well for the team as a whole.

Another thing to keep an eye on – while it's a good problem to have, not all of the lineman currently on the roster will be there when the team opens up the regular season.

It's a position group that is rich with talent, so the training camp battles will be especially fierce when the team gets to training camp.

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