The best word to describe the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders’ defensive line in 2019 is easy: YOUNG. Not only did the Raiders not employ a defensive lineman over the age of 29 all season, they have six players under the age of 25 heading into next season — led by guys like Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Maurice Hurst, PJ Hall and Arden Key.
Despite their youth, this group also produced at a fairly high level, ranking eighth in the league in run defense (98.1 ypg). Unfortunately, that success didn’t translate to a lot of sacks as they finished 24th in the league with just 32 sacks. Then again, let’s remember this group logged just 13 sacks one year prior — so at least there’s improvement!
Under Contract: Jonathan Hankins, PJ Hall, Maurice Hurst, Clelin Ferrell, Arden Key, Maxx Crosby, Ade Aruna
Of all the position groups on the roster, it feels like defensive line might be one of the more stable groups. I could see the Raiders making a splash move — either early in the draft or via free agency — but I wouldn’t expect much turnover otherwise.
Of the free agents, I’d expect the Raiders to make a push to bring back Jordan after he showed glimpses of promise last season — aside from him, I think the rest of the free agents won’t make it to Las Vegas.
A year after posting an embarrassing sack number, the Raiders invested heavily in their defensive ends — spending their top pick on Ferrell and then a fourth-rounder on Crosby. While Ferrell was a disappointment overall, Crosby more than made up for it by finishing second in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
The question for Crosby and Ferrell — as well as for the second-year man in Key — is what 2020 looks like. This feels like a make or break year for Ferrell and Key in the sense that they’ve got one more chance to prove the Raiders don’t need more help on the outside. With a dynamic force like Crosby on one side, the Raiders are desperate to find him a running mate.
While lacking pro-bowl-level talent, this is a group that is solid and deep. Hankins — who came over from Indianapolis on a two-year deal last offseason — was a solid addition to a group that needed a little bit of a consistent, veteran presence. Putting him in a rotation with 2018 draft picks Hall and Hurst allowed the Raiders to become one of the better run defenses in the league.
The problem with this group is that they’re fairly one-dimensional. While stout against the run, they lacked the interior push on passing downs that NFL teams covet. As a result, a lot of passing downs featured guys like Ferrell and Jordan moving inside — somewhere neither of them seemed particularly comfortable.
Overall, this group moved from one of the worst in the league to somewhere around league average — which is admirable progress considering where they were. It will be fascinating to see what Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden decide to do this offseason here, because while there are other areas that are far more desperate for help — it would seem that infusing more cash into this group in hopes of moving them towards the top of the league could cover up some holes elsewhere.
Can Ferrell prove he was worthy of a top-five pick? Can Crosby go up another level? Can Key, Hurst or Hall turn the corner and become consistent needle-movers? These are the questions that will define the 2020 season.