Raiders' Maxx Crosby proves an NFL draft steal with 10-sack rookie season


Raiders' Maxx Crosby proves an NFL draft steal with 10-sack rookie season

Maxx Crosby took Drew Lock down twice in the Raiders' regular-season finale. He split the first sack with Johnathan Hankins and claimed the second as his own. He flung the Broncos quarterback to the ground and forced a fumble in the process, with Clelin Ferrell recovering to give the Raiders a chance to erase a deficit.

The Silver and Black weren’t able to complete a comeback and lost 16-15 that day in Denver, but those plays illustrate the profound impact Crosby had on the Raiders this season.

They also hit a milestone, giving Crosby 10 sacks on the season.

“You know, that to me is a jaw-dropping number not a lot of people know about,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “I mean, he had 10 sacks as a rookie.”

That’s a massive number for a fourth-round NFL draft pick from a small school you’ve never heard of scheduled to be a situational pass rusher. Crosby thrived in a full-time role earned in Week 4 and sustained is throughout an excellent season.

He finished with 46 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He was a solid edge run defender and proved a prolific pass rusher with an always-revving motor. Crosby had 10 sacks, five quarterback hits and 29 hurries. He won on 6.4 percent of his pressures as a rookie, a number that improved as the season wore on. His rookie sack total was second only to Josh Allen.

Those numbers vaulted Crosby into the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. That award’s going to 49ers rookie Nick Bosa and deservedly so, but that shouldn’t discount Crosby’s season or the Raiders’ excellent return on investment for a fourth-round pick.

[RELATED: Clelin Ferrell vows to return to Raiders 'completely different player']

Crosby’s progress was slowed by a broken hand in the preseason, but he quickly found his way and made significant progress on the job.

“I think I’ve taken strides,” Crosby said. “The main thing is mentally being confident and trusting my technique and trusting coaches. That allows you to play 100 miles per hour. That takes time, and I feel like I finally started to get in a groove.

Crosby hit a groove around midseason, where the pressures were more consistent. That ramped the entire Raiders pass rush up a notch, especially during a three-game winning streak that pushed the Silver and Black into serious playoff contention. His best game came in Week 11, when he had eight pressures, including four sacks, against the Cincinnati Bengals. That capped a run of at least seven pressures in three of four games and showed how impactful he could be.

Fellow rookie edge rusher Clelin Ferrell had a monster game in that mix, and those two leaned on each other during good times just as they had in early-season struggles.

“I’ve seen growth in Maxx,” Ferrell said. “We keep each other grounded. We’ve been through the ups and downs and everything people have said about us, and he has always kept a level head through this whole entire thing. That’s the biggest thing, and I feel like I aid into that. If I’m having a bad day, he keeps my spirits high. If he’s having a bad day, I keep his spirits high. We both know that, at the end of the day, we need to get it done together. Me and Maxx, we’re the future.”

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Crosby wasn’t content with his huge rookie season, knowing there’s better ahead for him and the entire Raiders defensive line.

“We’re off to a good start, but we have tons of room to grow,” Crosby said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to [with a playoff spot], but we’re going to keep working hard and get one.”

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.