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Oakland Raiders Position Review: Defensive Line

Posted Feb 17, 2017

With the offseason underway, Raiders.com takes a look at the roster, and breaks down each position.

MORE POSITION REVIEWS: Quarterbacks, Safeties, Running Backs, Cornerbacks, Offensive Line

Overview: The good news? Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack put together yet another outstanding campaign in Silver and Black in 2016. No. 52 was a dominant force all season, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, First-Team All-Pro honors, as well as being named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. Mack finished the season with 11 sacks – a solid number to be sure – but outside of his production getting after the quarterback, the Raiders as a whole struggled to bring down the opposing quarterback, finishing last in the NFL with 25 sacks as a team.

Now, are sacks the defining stat for characterizing how effective a defense is overall? Absolutely not, but being able to generate pressure on the quarterback from across the defensive line certainly pays dividends for the group in general.

In his end-of-season press conference, Head Coach Jack Del Rio discussed the need to generate more of an interior rush going forward, and while being able to pressure the quarterback from the middle of the line is something that the Silver and Black will assuredly look to improve upon in 2017, it’s important to remember that defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.’s group was without the service of Mario Edwards Jr. for most of the season.

The dynamic interior rusher was injured in the team’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, eventually appearing in the Silver and Black’s final two games after being activated from the Reserve/Injured – Designated to Return list. While the productivity of a defensive line as a whole isn’t predicated on one player, it bears noting that the Raiders were at their most dynamic in 2015 when Mack and Edwards were teamed up and playing off each other, wreaking havoc along the defensive front.

But, injuries are a part of the game, and in Edwards’ absence other players were asked to step up and fill the void.

Denico Autry and Stacy McGee both finished with 2.5 sacks apiece, while James Cowser, and Dan Williams combined for 1.5 sacks as well.

By The Numbers: Mack has totaled 30 sacks in his career, which is the most by any player in the 2014 draft class. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald ranks second with 28.

Going Forward: Led by Mack, the defensive line appears to be another position group that looks to be in pretty good shape as the Raiders head into 2017. The All-Pro defensive end still has one year left on his rookie deal, and Edwards – who will presumably be healthy and ready to go – is also under contract in 2017 and beyond. In fact, most of the defensive linemen/tackles on the roster are inked up for next season, save two, Stacy McGee who is an unrestricted free agent, and Denico Autry who is a restricted free agent, so keep an eye on those two in particular once the new league year begins.

That being said, two young players I’m excited to watch in 2017 are James Cowser and Jihad Ward. Both Cowser and Ward flashed the ability to be quality pros at moments throughout the season, and I think that having the benefit of going through a full Offseason Workout Program will pay noticeable benefits for that pair in particular.

As Head Coach Del Rio said, the perceived lack of an interior pass rush will be something that needs to be addressed in 2017, so I’ll be interested in seeing how that is manifested, whether that be in the draft, via free agency, or in the development of players already on the roster.

Standout Performer: Khalil Mack. It has to be Khalil Mack. Not only was the powerful edge rusher the most dangerous man along the Raiders defense line (77 tackles, 11 sacks,one interception returned for touchdown, four passes defensed,five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries), he was the best defensive player in the league, period.

While his 11 sacks were down from the 15 he had in 2015, he easily could have had a few more had it not been for a few, shall we say suspect, holding penalties that went uncalled throughout the season.

However, I digress; Mack was the sparkplug that made the Raiders defense as a whole run in 2016, and he was absolutely worthy of earning the nod as the AP Defensive Player of the Year at season’s end.

In the midst of Mack’s defensive’s brilliance, something that I think oftentimes goes unappreciated about No. 52’s game is his durability; in three seasons, Mack has yet to miss a game, playing all 48 regular season contests since he was drafted.