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Cle Ferrell facing a battle for his starting job

Updated July 29, 2021 - 6:35 pm

At one point during Raiders training camp on Thursday, Jon Gruden strolled over to the defensive linemen, looked at Clelin Ferrell as he lined up for a rep and fired off some empathetic words of encouragement for the third-year defensive end from Clemson.

Some of which would never be allowed in a family publication.

Maybe it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. Or perhaps it was part of a grander plan to push the sort of buttons needed to lift Ferrell to a higher plateau this year.

Whatever the case, between the personal touch the Raiders coach applied to Ferrell, and Ferrell’s rather conspicuous spot on the second-team defensive line, there certainly seems to be a plan in place for him.

It is one for which playing time hangs in the balance. “Certainly, he’s going to be competing,” Gruden said.

That isn’t exactly what Raiders fans want to hear about the fourth player chosen in the 2019 draft. By now Ferrell should have solidified himself as one of the best players at his position, not fighting to hold on to the starting job.

But that is exactly what appears to be happening.

For his part, Ferrell isn’t reading too much into where things stand after the second day of training camp. “The depth chart is going to be what it’s going to be at the end of camp,” he said.

Gruden doesn’t appear too worried either.

“If you know Cle, you’ll know he’ll compete,” Gruden said. “You probably should count on him to be a big part of this.”

The question is, how big and in what form?

The dynamics have clearly changed in the Raiders’ defensive line room, as evidenced by the eight- to nine-player rotation among the first- and second-team defense over the first two days. The lengthy rotation provides a glimpse into the much improved depth of that group, and the battle that will occur for snaps.

It is a fight that could mean a new role for Ferrell, perhaps even a condensed one.

But rather than sulk, Ferrell sees the upside both individually and collectively.

As he indicated on Thursday, the Raiders’ defensive line the last two years struggled to get through games and seasons because of a lack of quality depth. The depleted gas left in the tank at critical moments contributed to subpar performances.

“Guys kind of got burnt out,” Ferrell said.

That issue should be mitigated this year with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue, Quinton Jefferson, Darius Philon, Solomon Thomas, Matt Dickerson and Malcolm Koonce — and what looks to be a much improved holdover in Maxx Crosby.

It might mean fewer snaps for Ferrell, and perhaps cost him his spot at the top of the depth chart. But he thinks the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“Anytime you’ve got a slew of guys in the d-line group … it’s always good,” Ferrell said. “Because, you know, we play a very violent position.”

Besides, new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said the plan is to throw waves of pass rushers at opposing offenses, with plenty of mixing and matching in search of favorable matchups. That means ample playing time for everyone. The key being, the efficiency of those snaps should increase because players will be better off, physically, to play them.

“This is probably the biggest d-line group since I’ve been here,” Ferrell said.

Ferrell provides plenty of versatility. He he can start drives on the edge, where he provides superior run defense to Ngakoue and Crosby, and can also slide inside to tackle in known passing situations.

“I think his best pass rush might be inside,” Gruden said.

The versatility has been a double-edged sword for Ferrell, whose shuffling from outside to inside has produced a solid player but not someone who has dominated in any particular area. Ferrell graded out as the highest Raiders defensive linemen last year, according to Pro Football Focus, with solid marks among his NFL peers in both the run and pass rush. But he hasn’t necessarily stood out in either category.

“Coming out of college I got asked to do some things I had never done before,” Ferrell said. “Being put in that environment the first two years has been a major, major learning experience.”

The Raiders want him to develop into more of a down-in, down-out difference-maker who makes his presence felt as a run defender and pass rusher. His ability to do so will not only benefit the defense but also help clarify his future in Las Vegas.

The Raiders have a big decision to make at the end of the season on whether to pick up Ferrell’s fifth-year option in 2023. A productive season in 2021 will certainly make for an easier decision.

For now, Ferrell is focused on helping the Raiders’ defense become more of an asset than the liability it’s been the last few years.

“We want to be the reason why we win,” he said. “We want to be the reason why other teams fear us. We want to be the reason why get to play in the Super Bowl.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter.

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Las Vegas handicapper Bruce Marshall is editor of The Gold Sheet (Goldsheet.com). He provides the Review-Journal with NFL tech notes and trends.