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‘Feed off each other’: Raiders’ defensive line aspires to greatness

A combination of shrewd drafting, player development and tapping into the free agent market has turned the Raiders’ defensive line into the team’s strength.

The question is, can this group end up being one of the best in the NFL?

It certainly looks possible. The lethal inside-outside combination of Christian Wilkins and Maxx Crosby rivals any in pro football. Combined with the emergence of Malcolm Koonce as a viable edge rusher and the steady play of interior linemen John Jenkins and Adam Butler, the Raiders have all the makings of a dominant unit.

“We have a chance to be a really good room, and I just like the makeup of our room,” Wilkins said. “We have a lot of guys who’ve had some success in this league, some guys who are starting to figure it out, and a lot of young guys who were just really young and really need to figure it out. And I like that because it’s good, we all kind of feed off each other, and it’s a really cool dynamic.”

All starts with Maxx

Years from now, the Raiders’ drafting of Crosby in the fourth round of the 2019 draft will go down as one of the best selections in team history.

Crosby has grown into the face of the franchise, its spiritual leader and a guiding force over the past five years. He attacks every practice and game rep as if he’s playing in the Super Bowl. He sets the tone in the locker room and routinely takes young players under his wing.

On the field, he is one of the best in the business as a two-way threat just as capable as a pass rusher and a run stopper. His 52 career sacks are a testament to his pass-rush prowess, but his career-high 92.7 Pro Football Focus run defense grade reflects his desire to be an all-around player.

To put the improvement in perspective, he hovered in the high 50s his first two seasons in the league.

At this point, there isn’t a hole in his game. Even scarier? He keeps getting better.

“For me, it’s not just about being the best at my position, it’s about being the best period,” Crosby said.

Big offseason signing

The Raiders pounced on Wilkins in free agency, investing four years and $110 million into the 28-year-old former Dolphins star. The deal includes $84 million in guarantees.

It’s a lot of money, but the expenditure is hard to argue. It isn’t often a player as dominant and young as Wilkins hits the open market. But the Dolphins’ salary cap situation made re-signing him nearly impossible, and the Raiders were able to swoop in and bring him to Las Vegas.

Crosby, Wilkins and Koonce combined for 207 quarterback pressures and 31½ sacks last year. With them now playing as a group, the Raiders will boast one of the best pass-rushing trios in the NFL.

“We just have to be ourselves, focus on what’s most important, and that’s the work, the process,” Crosby said. “Working even when you don’t feel great, and that’s what it’s really about.”

Emergence of Koonce

Koonce was a pleasant surprise last year, coming out of nowhere to become one of the top edge rushers in the league over the second half of the season.

A third-round pick out of Buffalo in 2021, he came into the season fighting for a roster spot, but the eight sacks and 49 pressures he produced over the last 11 games solidified him as a key piece moving forward.

“He’s grown tremendously,” Raiders defensive line coach Rob Leonard said. “… I know that everybody talks about the last eight games, but I mean, he was winning a lot of rushes early just without the result.”

The challenge now is building off that performance.

“I think it’s just me just focusing on trying to hit the ground running, not losing a step,” Koonce said. “I know what the baseline is now.”

Underrated duo

Jenkins and Butler sometimes get lost in the shuffle, but there is a reason the Raiders were so adamant about bringing the veteran defensive tackles back on one-year deals.

The pair combined for 89 tackles, six sacks and 43 quarterback pressures last year while providing a steady veteran presence. That fits perfectly as either relief for Wilkins when he takes a breather or alongside him.

Both play an integral role off the field as well.

“When Jenkins came in this building last year, he brought that D-line together like it’s never been together,” Raiders defensive assistant Rob Ryan said. “And they hang together, they believe in each other, and it makes it special. And to see him finally get recognized as a great player is really cool.”

The young gun

Pass rusher Tyree Wilson, the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, has a chance to put the defensive line over the top this year.

The Raiders understood his rookie season would be compromised by the foot injury he suffered late in the 2022 season. Thinking long term, they believed his rare combination of size, strength and athletic ability would eventually pay off.

Wilson was playing his best football over the last five games of the season, coming up with two sacks and 15 quarterback pressures.

Is it a sign of things to come? There is reason for optimism.

As opposed to last year, when Wilson was held out of football activities until the last week of training camp, he was a full participant throughout the offseason. The sole focus was on football rather than getting healthy.

“It’s a mindset, it’s a mentality over anything else,” Leonard said. “And he’s displayed that in (mini) camp.”

If Wilson becomes the player the Raiders envisioned — and if third-round pick Byron Young turns the corner as well — their defensive line can be exceptional.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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