Oakland Raiders Defensive Line Will Be Much Better In 2017 – Maybe

Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes (47) in the second quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes (47) in the second quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders, needing to fill some holes along a defensive line that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2016, have added some intriguing pieces that could help them improve – potentially.

Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, heading into the offseason, had some holes to fill on his roster. Most believed the biggest holes were along the interior of the defensive line and at inside linebacker – neither of which was seriously addressed via free agency or the draft. And yet, the defensive line could still wind up being better in 2017 than it was last season.

Maybe. Potentially. Of course, that’s a pretty low bar to clear.

In terms of run defense, pressuring the quarterback, and actual quarterback sacks, the Raiders’ defensive line was among the league’s worst. Justin Ellis had a down season, Dan Williams was virtually non-existent, Darius Latham – though he looked promising, was a little inconsistent.

The best piece of Oakland’s defensive line last year, Stacy McGee – though limited by injury as well – was allowed to walk away as a free agent this offseason.

The Raiders finished the year with a grand total of 25 sacks – the lowest total in the league. And of those 25, Khalil Mack (11) and Bruce Irvin (7) accounted for 18 of them. With McGee accounting for another 2.5 on his own, that’s 20.5 of Oakland’s 25 sacks, notched by just three players.

Clearly, something needs to change.

Part of the reason Oakland’s secondary was exposed as badly as it was last season was the fact that opposing quarterbacks were too comfortable in the pocket. They were given too much time to sit back and pick apart the pass coverage.

Oakland Raiders
Oct 10, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway (98) and defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. (93) sack Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) in the second quarter during the Red River rivalry at Cotton Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

No, this doesn’t excuse some truly awful play by Sean Smith and David Amerson, but it does help explain it a bit. The lack of pressure up front gave the quarterback way too much time and comfort – which of course, translates to receivers having more time to find the holes in the defense. Which they did. With great frequency.

Given that the Raiders needed to upgrade their defensive line – especially, in light of McGee’s departure and the release of Williams – most assumed it was going to be handled during free agency or through the Draft.

McKenzie waited until the third round to address their need on the interior of the defensive line, taking UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes, and Toledo’s Treyvon Hester in the seventh round. They also added Paul Boyette out of Texas as a UDFA and haven’t ruled out the idea of making more moves in the coming months.

Oakland’s defensive line has gotten faster, more athletic, and definitely younger this offseason. So much so, that Twenty-six year old Justin Ellis suddenly finds himself the elder statesman of the group.The question though, is – will they be better?

With an interior rotation of Latham, Ellis, Vanderdoes, Hester, and should he make the team, Boyette, the temptation is to say yes. There is a lot of explosiveness and aggressiveness along with the youth in that rotation. On the surface, given the strength, speed, and athleticism of this group, they very well could provide that inside push the Raiders didn’t have last season.

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The reality of the situation though is – we don’t know for certain what the Raiders have in all of those disparate pieces just yet. Which, of course, leaves a lot of question marks moving forward. Vanderdoes, Hester, and Boyette have all proved to be capable interior linemen at the collegiate level. But will that productivity transfer to the pros? We just don’t know yet.

What we do know for certain however, is that the Raiders need a better, stronger, and faster push from the interior line. They need players who can disrupt passing plays and shut down running plays. They need players who can really push that pocket, take on multiple defenders, and allow the edge rushers to do their thing. Also, snagging a few sacks from the interior of that line wouldn’t hurt either.

That this line has gotten younger and more athletic, it would seem to bode well for some improvement from that unit. Improvement this defense needs in a really big way. And improvement this team very well could get from this newly revamped, youthful unit.