Raiders

Jon Gruden wants to pair Khalil Mack with dominant inside rusher

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USATSI

Jon Gruden wants to pair Khalil Mack with dominant inside rusher

Khalil Mack is a dominant player, an elite edge rusher and an attraction when head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther joined the Raiders this winter.

Guenther has been at the dry-erase board, coming up with ways to get Mack free. As he said shortly after taking the job, isolating Mack in a one-on-one matchup is as good as a blitz.

Mack routinely sees double teams, occasionally more attention than that. He can handle it, as proven time and again the last few seasons. Remember his game-winning strip sack against Carolina in 2016? The Panthers had a guard, tackle and running back devoted to Mack. He got home anyway, took the ball from Cam Newton and won a game.

No. 52 can do what is hard. Gruden wants to make his job a little easier.

“Mack is certainly a centerpiece for our football team,” Gruden said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “We’d like a better inside rush for him to even be better.”

Guenther’s installing a defensive scheme based on what he ran in Cincinnati, that featured a dominant four-man rush. Geno Atkins led that inside push, and ranks among the league’s elite defensive tackles.

That guy’s tough to clone. The Raiders understand that. They sniffed around Ndamukong Suh after Miami released him, but the price was high and Suh ultimately cancelled at trip to Oakland and signed with the L.A. Rams.

The Raiders might have to look at the draft for help with their greatest post-free agency need. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst fits the bill of a strong inside pass rusher, and might be a good trade-down candidate in the first round. The Silver and Black could look for someone in the second round or later.

Gruden also called out one of his own to play better and live up to his athletic ability.

“Mario Edwards, if you’re listening out there…,” Gruden said, trailing off for effect. “If we can get inside rush going… That’s what Warren Sapp did for Simeon Rice (when Gruden was in Tampa Bay). It’s tough for the quarterback to step up. If a quarterback can’t step up, these great pass rushers can have a feast.”

That’s what Gruden wants for Mack and Irvin. Edwards would certainly help that cause. The 2015 second-round pick showed flashes of dominance as a rookie and early last season, but injury or inconsistency has kept the former five-star prep recruit from realizing potential. Gruden needs that from Edwards and others brought in to bring heat from the inside.

“(Mack) is a spectacular player,” Gruden said. “I don’t think he has scratched the surface yet. If we can get a better inside pass rush, a more consistent inside rush, a dominant inside rush, you’ll see the best of this guy. You see some of the disruption he hasn’t gotten credit for, and it’s really exciting for us to see what could happen.”

How rookie Brandon Parker earned respect of Raiders vets right away

How rookie Brandon Parker earned respect of Raiders vets right away

ALAMEDA – The Raiders have high hopes for Brandon Parker. They used a third-round pick thinking the athletic tackle can be a long-term solution on the offensive line.

The North Carolina product wasn’t thinking about the future this spring. Parker was focused on learning a new system, working with new position coach Tom Cable and endearing himself to new teammates.

That last goal isn’t always easy, especially on the offensive line. Rookies are tested and pushed early regardless of position. Offensive linemen want to see you stand up for yourself and protect your own. That is, after all, their primary job description.

Parker did that on the first day of last week’s minicamp, pushed back against defensive lineman Fadol Brown in an exchange that evolved into a post-rep scuffle.

Coaches didn’t love it. It distracted from practice and a two-minute drill. Brown was penalized and ejected from practice for fighting. The offense got some extra yards by penalty and kicking a field goal.

The linemen, however, were pleased to see Parker refusing to back down.

"Brandon stood up for himself,” left guard Kelechi Osemele said. “That was really cool to see. You always want to see that, you worry about a guy’s toughness. He’s a tough kid. He’s been playing well. He’s really intelligent. Really smart.”

Veterans test newbies. Parker made a good impression there.

“That’s a positive impression you want to leave,” Parker said. “You want to show the veterans that you’re not afraid of anything, and they you’ll go to battle with them like they’ll go to battle with you. It’s more a matter of gaining respect than proving you’re the toughest guy out there.”

Scuffles don’t improve your standing with coaches. Studying hard, executing well and flashing athleticism certainly does, especially before the pads come on. That was Parker’s primary objective during the offseason program.

“I think I presented well,” Parker said. “I do a good job retaining information. I didn’t really have a whole lot of mistakes. The first couple days are a whirlwind and a faster pace, but after I got used to it and got my feet wet and started to show the veterans what I can really do, they kind of warmed up to me. It has been a smooth adjustment ever since.”

Parker has had hiccups along the way, including a mistake early in the offseason program. He expected Cable to come up and correct what went wrong. Somebody different came his way quickly.

“I looked back and Donald Penn was there and was one of the first to address me,” Parker said. “Having his experience and (veteran Breno Giacomini) on the team and around to give us technical pointers is great.”

Parker and first-round offensive tackle Kolton Miller received significant work during the offseason program, and were praised for their intelligence and athleticism. There’s plenty of development remaining, but the rookies seem to be off to a good start.

“They’re smart kids. They listen,” center Rodney Hudson said. “They’re learning and working and asking questions, which I think is always important for young guys. To ask questions about where they can do better, and both of those guys do that.”

Watching Geno Atkins has Maurice Hurst excited to earn role in Guenther's defense

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AP

Watching Geno Atkins has Maurice Hurst excited to earn role in Guenther's defense

ALAMEDA – Maurice Hurst is familiar with Paul Guenther’s defensive scheme and his role in it. That knowledge didn’t originate from the Raiders offseason program, or sleepless post-draft nights studying the playbook.

Hurst studied it first at the University of Michigan, focusing on one of planet Earth’s best at his position.

“I’ve been watching Geno Atkins since I was in college,” Hurst said Wednesday. “He’s always someone I’ve had my eye on.”

The veteran Cincinnati Bengal is an elite defensive tackle both stopping the run and pressuring quarterbacks as a three technique, working a scheme Guenther coordinated the last four seasons. Hurst shares similar size, traits and explosiveness off the ball, making Atkins a proper athletic role model. He's a good one, with 61 sacks and six Pro Bowls to his credit.

Time watching Hurst was extremely well spent. The Raiders drafted Hurst in the fifth round – a health issue torpedoed this first-round talent’s draft stock – and paired him with Guenther, who came to Alameda this offseason to coordinate Jon Gruden’s defense.

The Raiders certainly hope Hurst can be like Geno in time, because a dominant interior pass rusher is vital to Guenther’s scheme.

“(Atkins is) strong and he’s fast,” Hurst said. “Those traits translate well in the NFL. He’s able to be very disruptive and get after the quarterback. The three technique is the penetrator of our defense. You have to have someone like Geno to make the defense go. That’s a major part of Coach Guenther's scheme, and why he brought in me and (second-round defensive tackle) P.J. Hall. We have Mario (Edwards). We have a good group of guys who can do what he expects us to do.”

Hurst has immersed himself in Guenther’s scheme since joining the Silver and Black. The Michigan man prides himself on scheme study and proper application in practice, but his head start may have helped. Having an inside man didn’t hurt. Fellow Wolverines defensive lineman Ryan Glasgow was drafted by Cincinnati last season and watched film with Hurst during the offseason.

“I had a pretty good idea of what the defense was like and what coach was expecting,” Hurst said, “from watching film with Ryan and talking to him on FaceTime.”

Hurst likes Guenther’s scheme, and his possible role playing three technique – lining up off the guard’s outside shoulder – for the Raiders.

“It definitely gets me amped up,” Hurst said. “The Bengals, their best player was their three technique. That’s the focal point of their defense, and that’s what Coach Guenther is used to getting, and what he has got his whole time in the NFL (with Atkins). He drafted Geno, and it says something for him drafting me and P.J. I think he expects a lot from us and expects us to fill that role he had with the Bengals.”

Hurst and Hall join Edwards as interior linemen with pass-rush ability. It’s unfair to heap expectations on a rookie and the Raiders won’t, but there’s optimism Hurst will make an instant impact.

He can’t make one right now – he hasn’t put pads on as a Raider – but believes he made a solid first impression during the now concluded offseason program.

“I handle those situations pretty well,” Hurst said. “I try to keep my knowledge of the game up, and I’m always on top of my plays. I’m making sure I always stay true to myself and stay true to the game by working hard and putting in a lot of effort. That’s what can set you apart, being reliable.”