For the most part, a lot is expected of rookies — unless they’re sitting out a year to mature — and for several teams they need them to contribute right away.
Maurice Hurst Jr., P.J. Hall, and Arden Key were all required to contribute last year for the Silver and Black, but more than they were anticipating. The Raiders dealt Khalil Mack away in a blockbuster trade eight days before the start of the season, and halfway through the year, the team parted ways with fellow pass rusher Bruce Irvin. This resulted in more snaps and playing time than rookies are accustomed to, but it was a valuable experience for each of them.
From a production standpoint, 13 sacks aren’t going to get the job done, but that’s not entirely on the trio. Hurst, Hall, and Key were asked to step up in ways they didn’t think they’d need to, but it’s made them look at the upcoming year with excitement.
“We know we didn’t get enough sacks out there, but the main thing is we have to stop the run,” Hall said. “If we can’t stop the run we won’t be able to rush the passer. That’s our main thing, so once we do that we’ll be able to get after it. So, we’re doing a lot of stuff out here, learn a lot of moves, trying to make sure we affect the passer a little more efficiently this year.”
The trio started in a combined 26 games last year, and played in a total of 43 games, missing a total of five between Hall and Hurst. In addition to the rookie learning curve every player experiences, the trio was forced to play alongside players that would be there one week and gone the next. The only consistent faces that remained on the line with them were Johnathan Hankins and Frostee Rucker — Justin Ellis was sidelined most the season with an injury. That can be strenuous on players adjusting to the speed of the NFL, and when there aren’t consistent mentors surrounding you to help guide you through the rough patches it can wear on you mentally.
The biggest benefit for the trio — aside from playing extended reps last year — is the level of communication and trust they have with each other.
“The biggest thing I feel like was actually playing last year,” Hall told the media following practice Thursday. “Being rookies we played a lot of reps, so we had a lot of experience out there. So, we’re actually carrying that into this offseason, what we did [last year]. We came back and are gelling together; we’re real close, we always talk. I felt like that plays a big part in being comfortable with each other and trusting each other out there.”
“Me and Maxx worked out together. Me, Mo, and P.J. call each other and see how each other’s doing, seeing how each other’s doing,” Key added during his scrum. “Buck has been teaching us a lot about the game mentally about anticipating what blocks you’re getting and how to defend that. Me, Mo, and P.J. kind of got a good feel for each other.”
The Raiders will have a young defensive line this year that’ll feature returning players like Hurst, Hall, and Key, and introduce rookies Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, and Quinton Bell. Jon Gruden has said on several occasions that the team doesn’t have time to wait for their maturation. Defensive line coach Brentson Buckner has been tasked with getting the unit up to speed before the start of the season, and the players seem to be responding well to his coaching style.
2019 will be a big year for the trio and as if expectations weren’t high enough last year, they’ll be even higher this time around; however, with a year of communication and trust in one another under their belt, Key, Hall, and Hurst feel comfortable attacking this season head on and striving for improvement across the board.