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FSM Presents: 2021 Raiders Position Preview- Defensive Line

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The Raiders defense has been a sore spot and an issue for years, no decades. The old football adage is you win up front. The Raiders seem to have finally the type of talent and depth to be impactful and change the course of a game.

 

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To put the Raiders’ 2020 defensive woes in perspective: They allowed the third-most points, forced the third-fewest turnovers (15), and collected the fourth-fewest sacks (21), and it was their inability to hold three leads with under 1:45 to play that ultimately cost the Raiders a playoff spot.

Free-agent pickup Yannick Ngakoue adds an edge pass-rush dynamic the Raiders have been missing for years and is one of only five NFL players to amass 40-plus sacks and 15-plus forced fumbles since 2016, he immediately becomes the Raiders’ most feared pass rusher. Ngakoue signed a two-year, $26 million deal, a year after he was rumored to be traded to the Raiders in the days leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft.

The 2016 third-round pick has at least eight sacks and four forced fumbles in four of his five professional seasons, totaling 45.5 sacks in this span. In 2017, he tallied 12 sacks as a key part of a Jacksonville Jaguars squad that ranked second in points allowed and reached the AFC Championship Game.

 

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Ngakoue’s presence means that Maxx Crosby will most likely move into more of a pass-rush specialist role, which will reduce his snap counts while potentially raising his efficiency. Crosby led the team in sacks for a second straight season since being drafted with the 106th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Chris Roling of Bleacher Report named Crosby as a potential breakout candidate for the 2021 season.

Crosby played 72 and 83 percent of snaps over his first two seasons, generating 63 pressures. In 2020, he had issues—such as missing 15.2 percent of his tackles—that resulted in a 57.8 PFF grade.

Not only is Crosby hitting that critical third year of development, but also additions around him such as Yannick Ngakoue and Solomon Thomas will mean less attention from offenses, likely leading to greater heights.”

On Tuesday, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden heaped praise on the third-year defensive end for his leadership on the practice field by showing his teammates how to give a full effort throughout practice.

He leads our team in effort. He does,” Gruden said. “You are talking about a guy that’s here in the offseason. I think he lived in the facility. My car is here, his car is here. I drive by the facility, and his car is still here…

He’s incredible. He’s in incredible shape. He can go all day, and I tried to wear him out today with a fourth-quarter pass rush in the last drill, and he’s ready for the 15th round. He wants to keep fighting. I love him. I love the way he’s working, and guys look up to him.”

Clelin Ferrell might have been a reach as the fourth overall pick in 2019, but he has steadily improved and provides a high-level skill set in setting the edge. On known passing downs, the Raiders will kick Ferrell inside, creating situations where he, Crosby, and Ngakoue are all on the field simultaneously.

 

The Raiders needed to address the interior defensive line and the added players that will provide depth, and make an impact.

 

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The Raiders signed former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas to a one-year deal worth up to $5 million. The 49ers infamously drafted Solomon Thomas with the third pick in the 2017 draft ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Now Mahomes and Watson are elite quarterbacks, and Thomas is coming off an ACL injury.

Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive lineman, has appeared in 48 contests and made 30 starts, totaling 95 tackles (73 solo), including 16 for loss, six sacks, and one fumble recovery. In three postseason appearances, he has recorded four tackles and one sack.

The Raiders hope Thomas can find some success moving back inside, where he was most effective in college and drew comparisons to the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald as an undersized defensive tackle.

I would definitely say that I like playing inside,” Thomas told Michael Robinson. “That’s where I made my bread and butter at Stanford. I like playing from that 3-technique. I think I can be real disruptive there. I can get into guards. I mean, I can be a great pass rusher off the edge there (too). I really like the inside, but I also think that’s what makes me special—my versatility and to move to the outside if you need (me) to. But inside, I feel like is where I can make my money.”

The Raiders will have training camp battles between Quinton Jefferson, Matt DickersonNiles Scott, Darius Stills, and Darius Philon (returning to the NFL following legal issues in 2019) and the retention of Johnathan Hankins. For the first time in recent memory, the Raiders have created depth and rotational possibilities inside.

 

The Raiders still were looking for more depth up-front despite the aforementioned players.

 

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A late addition to the Raiders defensive front is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

This signing comes in the aftermath of McCoy working out for the team, where he seemed impressed enough to have the organization move forward with a contract. The financial parameters of McCoy’s deal with Las Vegas were not immediately disclosed.

McCoy missed all of last season after suffering a ruptured quadriceps during practice as a member of the Cowboys, with whom he signed a three-year deal back in March 2020. He was released by Dallas in mid-August of last year and had been recovering since. Before that injury and landing with the Cowboys, McCoy spent the 2019 season as a member of the Carolina Panthers, where he started all 16 games and totaled five sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Most notably, however, the 33-year-old is a former first-round pick (No. 3 overall) of the Buccaneers back in 2010. In Tampa, McCoy reached the Pro Bowl six times and was a 2013 All-Pro.

He has 352 tackles, 59.5 sacks, 79 tackles for a loss, and 24 pass breakups for his career.

 

If the Raiders defensive line can wear down opposing teams and create pressure, that will help the rest of the defense. This is the same method the 49ers used and it got them to a Super Bowl, the Raiders hope for the same result. Next up CJ Baldwin will preview the Raiders linebackers in the next installment of our 2021 Raiders Positional Preview series.

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-Joe Arrigo – Franchise Sports Media

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