Raiders' broken pass rush has potential, but could take time to fix

Raiders' broken pass rush has potential, but could take time to fix

A great pass rusher's hard to find. Even consistently good ones are rare. 

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden made those true and salient points last season and got ridiculed for saying so shortly after trading Khalil Mack. 

Let's ignore the timing and context for a second and agree that star edge rushers don’t come around often despite all the top draft capital spent on them, while pointing out a glaring omission.

Everyone forgets the plural. 

Good pass rushers -- with an "s" -- are hard to find.

Teams need more than one to be impactful. The Raiders could use a fleet, like the Eagles now or the Seahawks a few years back. Even Mack couldn’t do it alone, or with Bruce Irvin as a tag-team partner. The Raiders were No. 24 in total sacks in 2017 and dead last during the 2016 playoff run, when Mack was the Defensive Player of the Year.

This isn’t a re-litigation of the Mack trade, but instead a discussion on the time required to fix a broken pass rush. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Mack turned the Bears into a juggernaut, but he was the last card required for a royal flush. The 49ers have the makings of pressure cooker, but it took four first-round draft picks – that includes the Solomon Thomas misstep (to this point) -- and a major trade to form.

It’s therefore unfair to expect No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell and fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby to right the ship right away – seventh-round pick Quenton Bell’s a major project -- even if second-year pros Arden Key, Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall kick it up a notch. The return to respectability could be long, especially reaching coordinator Paul Guenther’s preference to use a four-man rush.

The Raiders are happy with the prospects taken from this draft, believing dividends will come from these edge players.

“Let’s face it, we needed some defensive ends,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said. “You guys have been harping on that since I got here. We didn’t think that free agency was going to be the answer for that. I thought we did a really nice job here over the weekend to the extent that we couldn’t even sign any (undrafted) free agent defensive ends because they saw we drafted three. They’re all staying away from us.

"What we got, of course we got [Clelin] Ferrell - length, motor. We got [Maxx] Crosby - length, motor. Then we get this guy from Prairie View, Quinton Bell - length, motor, 4.40 speed. So we feel like for sure that’s a position we addressed and we’re excited about.”

Potential is surely there. Production might not be stellar, even if Ferrell hits the ground running. A quick start’s certainly possible considering his extensive pass-rush rolodex, motor and technical savvy, but rookies don’t typically take off without proper NFL experience.

Let’s not forget Mack only had four sacks as a rookie, even in a quality first year of run defense and quarterback pressure. Double-digit sack totals are relatively rare. Only seven rookies have reached 10 sacks in the last 10 years. Everyone in the crew save maybe one is a name you know, including Von Miller, Joey Bosa, Aldon Smith, and Bradley Chubb.

Greg Townsend and Anthony Smith have the team rookie record with 10.5, a first-year total that hasn’t been hit since 1991.

The Raiders believe Ferrell will be able to make an instant contribution, but he needs help inside from Hurst and Hall and threats off the opposite edge from Key, who had once sack, but Guenther believes he could’ve had more with better finishing.

There are few guarantees up front, something an established veteran could’ve provided had they not been so cost prohibitive on the open market.

[RELATED: Vegas gives Raiders very low chance to win Super Bowl]

The Raiders didn’t want to pay Mack top dollar and got killed for it – including at this web address -- though the Chiefs did the same with Dee Ford and the Seahawks with Frank Clark before those players got less than Mack’s record-setting total.

Time will tell if the foundation for steady quarterback pressure has been laid here after investing heavily in young pass rushers. More will probably come next year even if some potential turns kinetic, as the Raiders continue rebuilding their roster as Mayock and Gruden see fit.

Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

The Raiders entered the 2020 offseason with a checklist of holes to fill and positions to upgrade. They damn near did it all.

Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock spent most of their free agency dollars improving a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA in 2020. They added talent to all three levels, giving defensive coordinator Paul Guenther his most-talented unit to date. In the draft, the Raiders stacked talent on talent, focusing mainly on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards and running back Lynn Bowden will all be welcome additions to an offense that lacked the ability to create explosive plays in 2019.

The Silver and Black injected talent into their roster at key positions and look to be a much better team than the one that went 7-9 last season. An improved defense coupled with a more explosive offense and an extra playoff spot should give the Raiders hope for a postseason berth in 2020.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

But in order to do so, they'll need some of their key members -- not named Derek Carr -- to stay healthy and have big seasons to make that dream a reality.

Honorable Mentions: Henry Ruggs and Cornerback No. 2

Big things are expected from Ruggs. You don't get drafted with the No. 12 overall pick just to fly in under the radar. But receivers often struggle in their first season in the NFL and Gruden's offense is one of the more complex units in the league to grasp.

There's no doubt the Raiders will find ways to get the ball into Ruggs' hands as much as possible, but it might take a few weeks for the speedy receiver to find his footing in the NFL.

As for the other honorable mention, it belongs to what is perhaps the Raiders' biggest question mark. Whoever wins the cornerback job opposite Trayvon Mullen will have to be able to hold down their side of the field. Last season, the Raiders got virtually nothing from Daryl Worley at that position and their past defense suffered because of the gaping hole on that side of the field.

Getting production from Prince Amukamara, Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson or Isaiah Johnson is paramount for the Raiders to contend for a playoff spot.

5. Johnathan Abram

We don't know exactly what to expect from Abram, who missed all but one game during his rookie season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. But the Raiders need him to be healthy and to play an important role in the back end in order to keep the defense together.

Abram's injury in the Raiders' Week 1 win over the Denver Broncos was a bigger blow than most realize. Without sufficient depth at the position, the Raiders secondary struggled with communication and was burned too many times to count. Erik Harris eventually filled the role adequately, but once Karl Joseph went down in Week 10, the Raiders' secondary was unable to recover.

Abram is a physical safety who we expect to play more in the box, letting Damarious Randall handle the deep safety duties. But Abram must harness that aggression, play under control, stay healthy and give the Raiders 16 solid games if they are to make the playoffs. The defense has been rebuilt, but losing Abram again would be a hard loss to overcome.

4. Trent Brown

In a 2019 class of splashy free-agent signings that didn't pan out, Trent Brown was the lone Raiders home run.

Brown's first season in silver and black was a roaring success. He was named to the Pro Bowl and, when he was healthy and active, the Raiders' offensive line was as strong a unit as there is in the NFL. Brown allowed only one sack and registered a 77.8 pass-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus.

But multiple injuries ailed Brown and he eventually had to go on season-ending injured reserve due to a torn pectoral muscle. All told, Brown played 582 snaps for the Raiders, about 57 percent of the team's total. He missed six games and was hobbled in at least two that he suited up for.

When healthy, Brown is as good a right tackle as there is in football. The Raiders need him to be 100 percent in 2020 for the line to function at optimal capacity.

3. Clelin Ferrell

We know all about Ferrell's rookie season. The No. 4 overall pick battled an illness around midseason that forced him to lose weight and he spent the rest of the season trying to get back to his ideal playing weight.

He played inside and outside. He was a good run defender but notched just 4.5 sacks, a low number for the No. 4 overall pick. Ferrell vowed to return a different player in 2020. He's a hard worker who is filled with talent. The Raiders got great production off the edge from Maxx Crosby in 2019 and signed Carl Nassib to join the rotation for 2020. But Ferrell is the most talented player in the rotation and the Raiders need him to play as such.

His value won't be judged on sack totals, as that's often misleading. But Ferrell must increase hit pressure numbers in 2020. During his rookie season, Ferrell notched just 18 pressures and three hits. Those numbers must increase in 2020 for Guenther's unit to go from awful to average during the first season in Las Vegas.

The addition of Maliek Collins up front should help Ferrell improve his production and put the Clemson product in a more stable role on the edge.

2. Tyrell Williams

Big things are expected of Ruggs, but the rookie can't be expected to be a top receiver from Day 1. It will take time.

That's where Williams comes in.

Before the plantar fasciitis flared up, Williams looked to be worth every penny the Raiders spent on him. In the first two weeks, Williams caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. But he didn't go over 100 yards after Week 1 and had just two games with more than three catches after Week 2.

His feet were an issue, there is no doubt.

The Raiders need Williams to be healthy and productive from the jump in 2020 to take the pressure off Ruggs as he settles in. Williams has shown he can be a solid No. 2 receiver with the ability to level up at times. He went over 1,000 yards with the then-San Diego Chargers in 2016 after injuries forced him to become the No. 1 option.

Carr and Williams have good chemistry and it will be imperative for the offense that the veteran receiver is the player he was in Week 1 of 2019 for all of 2020.

[RELATED: Carr primed for career year after Raiders restock arsenal]

1. Cory Littleton

After years of toiling in linebacker hell, the Raiders went out and welded the hole shut by signing Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski.

Littleton was the big fish of the Raiders' offseason. He's an athletic, three-down linebacker who can cover tight ends and run sideline-to-sideline with running backs. That's something the Raiders haven't had and they've been scorched because of it.

Adding Littleton and, to a lesser extent, Kwiatkoski, gives the Raiders the ability to defend modern NFL offenses like the ones they'll face in the AFC West. The Silver and Black have been at a disadvantage playing without athletic linebackers and have been exploited time and time again.

Littleton is in the prime of his career and he has all the tools the Raiders need to field a defense that won't be gutted every time it takes the field.

He needs to be as advertised in 2020.

NFL odds: Raiders' Josh Jacobs a favorite to score first Las Vegas TD


NFL odds: Raiders' Josh Jacobs a favorite to score first Las Vegas TD

The Raiders’ home opener in Las Vegas is scheduled for Sept. 21 on “Monday Night Football” against the New Orleans Saints.

Which player will score the first regular-season touchdown at Allegiant Stadium?

You can bet on that proposition at the Westgate sportsbook, which posted odds on 18 players.

“They always talk about things that are established years later. Trivia-type things, like who was the player that scored the first touchdown at the stadium in Las Vegas,” Westgate vice president of risk Jeff Sherman said. ” We just wanted a wagering option similar to that.”

The Saints are 4½-point favorites over the Raiders, and the total is 50½ points.

[RELATED: Raiders' three key camp battles]

New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara is the 5-1 favorite to score the first TD, Saints wideout Michael Thomas is the 6-1 second choice, and Las Vegas running back Josh Jacobs is the 8-1 third pick.