Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has invested a few high draft picks into defensive linemen over the past few seasons. He has also found quite a few diamonds in the rough via free agency and late round selections. How is the Raiders defensive line developing in 2017?
When evaluating the defensive line as an entire unit is important to account for individual stats and performers as well as the collective performance of the entire unit. Great defenders show up but defense is a team game that relies on all 11 members of the defense. This is especially true in the front seven where players must react to a number offensive actions in a few split seconds. It is even more critical for the defensive line as they are the first line of defense. Yes, one great player can make a play for the whole unit but they are still beholden to the weaknesses of the players around them.
Head coach Jack Del Rio is a defensive coordinator by trade he has been a part of three Super Bowl caliber defenses that have included stout and dominate defensive lines. These included Denver, Carolina, Baltimore, and Jacksonville, even if the Jaguars never sniffed the Super Bowl. Many expected he would bring this culture to the Silver and Black.
Despite the Raiders brass, investing high selections in defensive players like Mario Edwards Jr., Jihad Ward, Shilique Calhoun, and Eddie Vanderdoes the group has been largely inconsistent. Edwards Jr. is the only consistent starter of that group.
Otherwise, they have found solid contributors in Denico Autry, James Cowser, Denico Autry, and Treyvon Hester via the later rounds and free agency. Autry has 28 total tackles and 4 sacks for the year, while Edwards has 27 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Justin Ellis has 38 solo tackles and .5 sacks
However, Khalil Mack has been this unit’s brightest star again in 2017. The reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year accounts for 7.5 of the team’s 22.5 sacks. Bruce Irvin is in second with 5.5 sacks. The combo accounts for four forced fumbles too.
As a whole, the Raiders front seven and defensive line is ranked No. 22 in adjusted line yards which is opponent’s adjusted line yards (you can read more here), per Football Outsiders. They are also 27th in adjusted sack rate, which is opposing offensive line’s sack rate versus the Raiders.
Further, they are fourth from the bottom in third down percentage, allow the 17th most points, and allow the 11th highest time of possession. The defense is last in turnover rate too.
Again, these team defensive stats do not fall solely on the defensive line. However, the front line is not exempt from blame either.
Collectively, the Raiders defensive line has great athletic ability. Their big, bodied tackles like Vanderdoes and Ellis have good agility and quickness for their size. Hybrid interior linemen like Autry and Edwards both rely on good balance, explosiveness, and acceleration. Edges Irvin and Mack are both great athletes for their combination of speed, strength, and athleticism too.
They are toughness is solid. Some players are more aggressive and consistent than others. Mack’s elite toughness really carries the group as he is always executing his assignments versus all levels of competition and double teams. However, the group is able to line up in multiple fronts and execute various stunts. They also find ways to make plays in clutch situations.
Added, the defensive line shows solid play strength by stalemating opponents in the run game and winning one-on-one battles. Ellis is good at anchoring the line while Mack, Autry, and Edwards will visibly knock back defenders with their strength.
Most of the Raiders defensive line also has good upfield burst. Edwards, Mack, Autry, and Irvin all have good ability to get off the ball and attack field.
Mack is the only elite pass rusher on the team as he is able to use great lean, hands and a distinct pass rush plan to knock blockers off balance, corner the QB and finish. Irvin is solid in this category but he does not always have the best plan, hands, or corner ability. Autry and Edwards are solid pass rushers as they are hands and pass rush plans continue to develop.
Versus the run, Ellis and Edwards are good defenders who can diagnose the run, neutralize blocks, and make tackles versus most competition. They have good use of hands to leverage blockers and free up linebackers. They can make the play on the ball carrier too.
Mack is very good in all of these categories. He uses elite play strength to neutralize blocks and elite mental processing speed to react to the play. This gives him elite ability versus the run as he leverages his gap, sheds blockers, and makes tackles.
Generally, the d-line is solid in pursuit. Players like Mack, Vanderdoes, and Edwards have very good motors to work through traffic and show great effort chasing plays that are away from them.
The defensive line can visibly wear down in games. This causes them to rely on a heavy rotation of defenders that can be exploited by up-tempo offenses.
The mental processing of this unit is adequate outside of Mack. Vanderdoes, Edwards, and Autry can all play overly aggressive and create seems in the run game or passing lane.
Otherwise, they can also play slow as they often are slow to react to the backfield. They will chase play action fakes and bite on screens.
Versus the run, this group also struggles using their hands to shed defenders and make the play. Good run blockers can also push them back. Vanderdoes and Ellis can let their pads get high too.
This interior group contains adequate and solid pass rushers. They lack the lean and hands to consistently get their blocker off balance and disrupt the pocket. In zone blitzes, the interior group can also be liabilities in coverage.
As for pursuit, this group does not always show the consistent effort and motor to move through traffic or make backside plays.
The Oakland Raiders defensive line collectively earns a C+ grade for their 2017 performance thus far. Before the season, USA Today ranked them as the 22nd unit and PFF ranked them as the 16th unit. They have been in about that range despite the entire defensive unit taking some minor setbacks this season including third down and turnover rate.
The defensive line is who we thought they were. They are a young and deep group with inconsistencies but they are growing through experience and rely heavily on Khalil Mack’s dominance.
Nonetheless, it is important to point out the group is playing more inspired since John Pagano took over the defense.
Pagano is blitzing more than Ken Norton Jr. is and he is allowing his players to think less, which is part of the improvement. The unit is also playing with extra motivation since they were largely upset that Norton Jr. was let go midseason.
In Pagano’s first week as DC, the unit only allowed 219 total yards, recorded their first interception of the year, and registered five sacks.
The next week versus the Giants, the edge rushers registered two turnovers after the entire defense had just seven for the entire season. They have eight sacks in two weeks under Pagano after starting the season with 14 in 10 games.
Thus, the defensive line earns the plus part of their grade because they are trending more towards their potential in the brief Pagano era. They are an average group but they can be better with more consistent execution and effort.