NFL Draft

Three's company: Raiders relying on trio of rookie defensive linemen

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AP

Three's company: Raiders relying on trio of rookie defensive linemen

NAPA – The Raiders drafted offensive tackle Kolton Miller in this year’s first round. Three of the next four rounds reaped defensive linemen.

Tackle P.J. Hall went in the second round. Edge rusher Arden Key was taken in the third. Tackle Maurice Hurst somehow slid to the fifth.

Coincidence? Certainly not.

Maybe those guys were sitting atop on the draft board when. Maybe a defensive lineman was the best available player in each instance.

No matter. They also filled a major need.

The Raiders needed to help Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin up front. Head coach Jon Gruden said so whenever a microphone came near.

They needed interior pass rushers most of all. They got two of them. They needed depth off the edge. Check.

One issue: Draft picks can’t always be counted on to contribute right away. Development sometimes takes time.

The Raiders need D-line help right away. There’s a growing belief, however, that Hall, Key and Hurst can make an instant impact.

“The rookies in our room are really going to help us,” Irvin said. “They really have no choice, we need them. Those guys are picking it up good and learning. They’re coming out here and working their butts off. They’re doing really good with their rookie duties. We need them and those guys are doing good.”

Key has shown unique athleticism, bend and an arsenal of pass-rush moves. Hall’s pectoral strain kept him out a week of camp, but is proving tough to block. Hurst was a first-round talent who slipped with health concerns – an irregular heartbeat scared several teams off -- but was thrown into the mix after being cleared by the Raiders.

Hurst was widely considered a late first-round pick before his heart condition became common knowledge at the combine. Key was a top edge rusher before his senior year at LSU went awry. Those two know they’re first-round talents who fell into the Raiders’ lap. That has placed a proverbial chip on two shoulders, which could help the Raiders out.

“I don’t know if it ever goes away,” Hurst said. “It’s something you’ll always carry with you, and that’s okay if it pushes you to work harder. You want to prove your team right and other teams wrong.”

Coaches and scouts expect big things from this trio, especially after seeing them early in camp.

Hurst could be a regular three technique in the base defense and on passing downs. His first step and burst was unmatched at the college level, and should help him adapt in the NFL.

Hall is just getting into the mix after starting on PUP, but could join the interior rotation with a solid preseason. Gruden says Hall’s “hard to block,” and had record-setting production at small-school Sam Houston State.

The rookie defensive linemen have embraced high expectations, and come armed with the confidence required to compete with established vets.

“They don’t want us to be rookies,” Hurst said. “They want us to come out and play right away and play effectively. They want us to dominate. They expect us to be a vital part of this defense.”

Key, Hall and Hurst want to be a long-term solution along the Raiders defensive front. That has been a discussion point, something addressed after rookies reported to training camp, before the veterans showed up.

“We plan on staying together,” Key said. “We all had a meeting when we first got here and talked about how we could grow together and make each other better and stay together for our careers. Each guy is working under a veteran right now, learning their tools and tricks. We all come together when we have to do our rookie duties (like carrying pads, getting snacks) but it’s fun. We all like each other.”

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.”

Michigan coach calls star pupil perfect for Raiders, 'a disruptive, attacking force inside'

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Michigan coach calls star pupil perfect for Raiders, 'a disruptive, attacking force inside'

The University of Michigan football team is in a quiet period between spring practice and fall camp, but Greg Mattison is hot on the recruiting trail. The University of Michigan’s defensive line coach is crisscrossing the country trying to secure quality Wolverines, without much time for anything else.

Squeezing in an interview request during a brief stretch home in Ann Arbor, Mich., wasn’t easy. Mattison, I was told, would get to it during a free moment over a few days.

The respected defensive coach called within the hour.

“I am pretty busy these days, but after I saw (the interview request), I wanted be sure and talk to you,” Mattison said. “Anything for Mo.”

‘Mo’ is defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Mattison’s star pupil and a Raiders fifth-round pick. The bond is strong between player and position coach. Mattison recruited Hurst out of Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, Mass., and spent five subsequent years developing him into an NFL-caliber player.

Mattison gave a glowing review of his time working with Hurst during an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area, as you’d expect from a college coach talking about a former player.

College coaches don’t publicly criticize their guys. But, if they don’t have anything nice to say, they don’t say anything at all.

Mattison called back in a snap.

“I recruited him and coached him for five years, so I probably know Mo Hurst as well as anybody around,” said Mattison, a longtime college coach who was Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator from 2009-10. “He comes from a tremendous family, and his mother is as good a person as you’ll meet and did a tremendous job raising him. Mo has all the work habits and character you want in a player. He’s one of those guys, where I’ve never seen him do something that wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Mattison has great affection for Hurst, which is why the NFL Draft was so tough to watch. Hurst is a first-round talent, arguably the draft’s best interior pass rusher, yet fell to the fifth due to concerns about an irregular EKG.

The University of Michigan cleared him to play despite a heart condition. The Raiders didn’t have a problem with it either, and drafted Hurst with the No. 140 overall selection. The draft slide was a disappointment for all involved.

“He has a lot of pride,” Mattison said. “You watch the draft and so many times I said, ‘Mo’s way better that the kid they just took.’ You know why it was happening, because of this test or whatever. The thing we all knew was that he was fine. It was the same thing when he came to Michigan. He was fine.”

The Raiders believe he is fine to play in 2018, and will have annual checkups to ensure that remains the case each season. Head coach Jon Gruden wants Hurst to be judged on the field -- he won’t discuss Hurst’s health any farther – and the Wolverine has a real chance to make an immediate impact as a three-technique in Paul Guenther’s defensive system.

“He fits perfectly in a scheme like that,” Mattison said. “The Raiders got the greatest steal in the world. He’s a perfect fit, and to get Mo when they did is quite something. What you always want in that type of defense is a disruptive, attacking force inside. I’ll put Mo up against anybody in his ability to do that.”

Hurst is an excellent pass rusher and solid run defender, perfectly capable of being a three-down standout. A lot of that is due to an explosive first step that’s as fast and impactful as any.

“He’s born with that,” Mattison said. “We certainly tried to improve it, but he has always had that great first step. Him doing that and playing low and strong, that’s what makes him special.”

Mattison also lauded Hurst’s football IQ and his willingness to study offensive tendencies, saying “he was really good identifying things on the field and using them to his advantage.”

Mattison believes the five years spent at Michigan gave him the maturity and toughness to excel at the NFL level. It allowed Hurst to earn his bachelor’s degree and start work on his master’s degree. Seeing Hurst move on after accomplishing so much gives Mattison a great sense of gratification.

“That’s why you coach, and that’s why I left the NFL to come back to college football,” Mattison said. “The pride you take in getting a young man to come to your school and watching him develop is immense. I have two goals with my guys. I want them to get a degree, and to play in the NFL. If they do that, then I’ve done my job and I’m the happiest guy in the world. Mo’s a perfect example of that.”