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It’s all on the line for Raiders defense moving forward

If one thing has become abundantly clear over the course of this Raiders season it’s that the team’s defense is going to be led, for better or worse, by the defensive line.

Of course, that’s if defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and his 4-3 scheme is retained.

Jon Gruden said Monday that “the plan” is to keep the staff intact, but left it very open-ended. If I had a wish for Raider Nation, it would be that Rex Ryan and his innovative 3-4 scheme that wreaks havoc on the league’s best quarterbacks would be part of the Las Vegas set, but we all have dreams.

If the Raiders do move forward with the status quo, the defensive line will lead the group as they transition in many spots at linebacker and in the secondary.

The line being so important to this scheme is not revolutionary, it’s part of the plan. Scheme godfather Mike Zimmer had great defensive lines in Dallas and Cincinnati, and Guenther inherited a talented group once Zimmer went to the Vikings. The 2015 Bengals featured basically the ideal players at each position — ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, nose tackle Domata Peko, and superb three-technique (penetrating) tackle Geno Atkins. The Bengals went 12-4 that season and the defense was second in points allowed and 11th in points.

This Raiders group (24th in points allowed, 19th in yards) that Gruden and Mike Mayock have assembled has that kind of potential if the players continue to improve, especially rookie ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell.

NFL players entering their second year in the league tend to make the biggest jump of their careers if they mind their craft in the offseason because they’re familiar with the scheme and this is the first time they’ll be dedicated solely to their jobs (well, that’s the plan … some get lazy and enjoy their new-found fame).

A look at what the Raiders have on their line entering this offseason:

Edge players

Maxx Crosby: The Carlos Dunlap of this group had a tremendous rookie season with 10 sacks, especially for a fourth-round pick. Considering how he transformed his body as a rookie, he could return as a monster next year. After slumping towards the end, he finished with a flourish Sunday with eight impactful plays, including a strip sack. Still has much to learn as far as discipline against the run and pass. But if this season was any indication, great things are in store for J.J. Watt Jr.

Clellin Ferrell: A very mediocre season for the fourth overall pick with just 4.5 sacks, though he did show flashes of brilliance as a pass rusher and against the runs at times. But it was very few and far between. As the Michael Johnson for the Raiders, the team is depending on him to be a matchup nightmare that keeps offensive coordinators awake at night. He’s far from being there.

Dion Jordan: The former third overall pick of the Dolphins in 2013 really opened eyes after serving his PED suspension with 13 quarterback pressures in seven games and spot duty. He’s built more like Johnson, so he’s going to push Ferrell if Jordan is brought back as a free agent. See no reason why not. Played some very smart ball at times.

Arden Key: Had similar stats to Jordan in similar time because of injuries. The 2018 second-pick fit very well as a designated pass rusher and hopefully he can stay healthy.

Benson Mayowa: Made a huge splash and likely made himself some money as a free agent with his stellar play (30 pressures, eight sacks). Would think the Raiders make a push to retain him. This scheme depends on a deep line rotation. Can be overaggressive with his rush at times.

Josh Mauro: A perfect fit as a veteran who could teach and sub for Crosby. He’s a free agent and figures to get a few looks elsewhere even though he’s not much of a pass rusher. Seems to be a good player in the room and inside/outside versatility.

Inside tackles

Maurice Hurst: As three-technique in this scheme, the 2018 second-round pick plays a vital role and played mostly well. He’ll occasionally bring some pass rush (three pressures, including two knockdowns against the Broncos) but needs to be more of a threat against the run and just in general. The Raiders need a player here who always commands double teams, like Akins in Cincinnati, and not sure if Hurst will ever be that player.

Johnathan Hankins: As one of the larger players on the line, Hankins is supposed to be the run-stuffing nose tackle for this group, and he’s done a fair job of that. But if the Raiders are to take the next step, expect them to look for one in the draft.

PJ Hall: Similar to Hankins but a little bit more disruptive (23 pressures). A bit overdrafted as a second-round pick in 2018, Hall has been a solid rotation player to this point and could continue to do more.

The Raiders have a lot of good pieces along the line and while the edges appear to be set both in frontline (Crosby, Ferrell) and depth (Mayowa, Jordan, Key) if players are retained, the interior could use more competition and development.

This scheme relies on the interior tackles to not only pressure the quarterback and stuff the run, but they also have to possess the ability to occupy blockers so the linebackers are free to run, hit and make plays. The Raiders lacked that at times this season, so some positive movement there will be a key piece of the offseason.

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Greg A. Bedard covers the NFL for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at gbedard@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GregABedard on Twitter.

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