ALAMEDA, Calif. — His rookie season is almost over, but the learning process continues for Raiders defensive end Clelin Ferrell. Every practice, every game and every blocking scheme is an opportunity to devour information.
That he’s sometimes on the wrong end of that learning curve is perfectly fine with him, too. In fact, he appreciates the process. It’s all a vital component to becoming the player the Raiders envisioned when selecting him with the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
That hasn’t happened yet. Ferrell has 31 tackles in 13 games. His 3½ sacks came in two games, and he’s gone six games without a sack, tackle for loss, quarterback pressure or quarterback hit.
He has 12 quarterback pressures, seven quarterback hits and four tackles for losses while spending the first nine games playing the three-technique as an inside pass rusher before moving outside to defensive end after flu-like symptoms resulted in a 15-pound weight loss.
“A lot of the production that we’ve got from Ferrell is production that no one really knows about,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “But he’s had some really good moments, he’s had some tough snaps and some tough, tough moments, but he’s hanging in there.”
In a season that hasn’t necessarily lived up to expectations, Ferrell is focused on the big picture.
“I’ve just been enjoying the whole ride,” he said. “It’s been really good. And I love that it’s been a learning experience. I feel that will help me reach my potential. There’s many years to come, and I think people will see that potential.”
But he does have one wish.
He looks forward to the day when his natural instincts win the day over the constant thinking he’s doing on the field and sometimes develops into a subtle doubt that leads to playing fearfully rather than confidently.
It’s a hurdle he had to clear early in his career at Clemson, where the mandate to play almost perfectly led to playing too hesitantly.
“The rule was you can’t mess up, and I feel like I got that little bit of fear of messing up,” Ferrell said. “And you can’t have that. You have to play free and confident.”
The Raiders picked up on some of that hesitancy early in the season.
“I just felt like he was thinking too much about some things,” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “And I was just like, go cut it loose. Go rush the passer. Go play your run fit. Whatever it is, just play fast. You’re going to make mistakes as a rookie, it’s a natural thing as a rookie. I just don’t want you thinking about it or overthinking it. This is not a piece-by-piece game, it’s a go and go.”
Ferrell eventually turned worry into confidence at Clemson, and by his junior year, he was named first-team All-American and won the Ted Hendricks Award as the country’s best defensive end.
When he finds himself overthinking things, Ferrell reminds himself of the mental blocks he cleared at Clemson.
“When you’re going against an offensive lineman, you have to realize you’re not just going against him, you’re also going against the guy beside him,” Ferrell said. “It’s literally a connective system that they have. It’s five guys working together at all times, and then you sometimes have help from the running back and tight ends as far as the passing game. … So it’s really just learning the whole full scale of the offense.”
It worked out in college. And the Raiders think the same will happen in the NFL.
“He’s in there in the trenches for us, stopping the run,” Guenther said. “He’s not a specialized pass rusher coming off the end. Everyone looks at the sack numbers, but there’s a lot of other things that people don’t see that he’s done a good job of.”
There’s also a learning curve off the field, Ferrell said.
“Like how this league works. How the media works. It’s the whole combination of things. How to interact with teammates. How to grow up and be a man and do things on your own,” he said.
“… I feel like it’s been a good year for me, regardless of what people say on the outside. There’s been challenges. But also moments of success, too.”