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‘He’s a worker’: New Raider emerging as key defensive leader

On top of everything else the Raiders’ offense was dealing with this offseason, going head-to-head with Maxx Crosby and Christian Wilkins every day didn’t help.

The two were a constant problem for a unit learning a new scheme under first-year offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. The Raiders are counting on that being the case for their opponents as well. The team feels it created a two-headed monster by pairing one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive ends in Crosby with the best defensive tackle on the free-agent market in Wilkins.

“Makes life easier for us as coaches, I’ll tell you that,” Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said.

Wilkins’ presence was felt at all levels of the team’s defense during its organized team activity practices and mandatory minicamp.

He and Crosby were unstoppable in 11-on-11 drills. They blew up plays behind the line of scrimmage. They drew enough attention to free up fellow linemen Malcolm Koonce, Tyree Wilson, John Jenkins and Adam Butler. They allowed the Raiders’ linebackers and secondary to defend with aggression, knowing pressure was coming.

Wilkins’ energy, which mirrored Crosby’s constant motor, rubbed off on teammates as well. He also pulled aside younger teammates to give them advice throughout the workouts.

Wilkins, who signed a four-year, $110 million contract in March, hasn’t been with the Raiders for long. But he’s joining Crosby as a key defensive leader his first season with the team.

“I mean, they’re going to impact you. But the biggest thing is their work ethic stands out. Like, they are gym rats to a core,” Raiders senior defensive assistant Rob Ryan said.

Leadership qualities

It’s clear already youngsters like Koonce, Wilson and Byron Young look up to Wilkins.

The veteran is willing to do whatever he can to help.

“(It’s about) making sure guys are focusing on those things throughout the course of practice. Because sometimes when it’s hot out here and you get caught up in the heat of the battle, you might not be aware of certain situations or certain details or whatever,” Wilkins said. “So, just kind of bringing the guys on like, ‘Hey, let’s just focus right here, this situation.’”

Wilson, whose rookie season was held back by a foot injury he suffered his last year at Texas Tech, is someone Wilkins has spent considerable time with. They’re both former first-round picks who were not overnight successes.

Wilkins overcame his growing pains to become one of the NFL’s best interior defenders. He provides a great example for Wilson to follow.

“He’s somebody that can talk him through that process, what he went through, and every year he just kept getting better and better,” Raiders defensive line coach Rob Leonard said. “He will talk about it, like when the light bulb went on.”

On-field impact

The primary reason the Raiders signed Wilkins is still the impact he makes on the field.

He’s a physical force at the point of attack that can stop the run and rush the passer. He has 355 tackles, 20½ sacks and 50 quarterback hits in five NFL seasons.

That will be a perfect fit next to Crosby, who should see fewer double teams with Wilkins lining up next to him.

“He’s a worker, so I love having guys that are like-minded around,” Crosby said. “So, it’s been a hell of a start so far. We have a lot of work to do, but yeah, we’re just (feeding) off each other’s energy. We love football and that’s really all that matters.”

Wilkins couldn’t agree more.

“I’ve known Maxx for a long time, since college. But seeing it up close and personal each and every day, it’s like, ‘Damn, this guy doesn’t stop,’” Wilkins said. “He’s about the right stuff, and that’s good to see. So that even challenges me, just mentally, every day, like, ‘Alright, I have to bring it because I know he’s going to bring it,’ and vice versa. We kind of feed off each other there.”

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

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