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Graney: Raiders pass rusher is prime candidate for breakout season

Updated June 5, 2024 - 7:10 pm

Malcolm Koonce doesn’t set any personal goals. Doesn’t want to get too far ahead.

Besides, he knows what’s coming. A call from Dad.

“There’s a lot of coaching involved,” Koonce said, laughing.

Things haven’t even changed since youth football.

“Not very different at all,” Koonce said.

Patrick Graham saw growth in the fourth-year defensive end not in a sack or another type of game-changing play during organized team activities with the Raiders recently.

The defensive coordinator watched Koonce take a group of younger players aside for some words of wisdom.

Or some words of another variety.

Having confidence

“I mean, coaching them up with authority,” Graham said. “It’s like, ‘Do this, do that.’ Once you see it, that’s showing command of a craft. And when you hear that, just again, I tell you guys all the time as a teacher who happens to teach football — I was just proud. I was just giddy.

“I don’t know if a defensive coordinator should use the term giddy, but I was giddy to see him do that. You’re seeing a young man developing true mastery of his craft where he’s able to go ahead and coach others up with authority. I was impressed. It’s just the confidence he has right now.”

Koonce should be feeling good based on the second half of last season. He found his stride and began to make a much bigger difference than he had to that point.

He began taking advantage of playing opposite Maxx Crosby, the all-everything star who garners more than his fair share of opposing attention. Koonce made his mark once Antonio Pierce assumed the head coaching role. It wasn’t a coincidence.

“It’s an amazing vibe coming to work every day,” Koonce said. “Everything just feels better. For me (last year), it was just about not getting down on myself if I didn’t get a sack. Just trusting guys like Maxx, who said it’s going to happen if you just keep on keeping on.”

How he kept on: Koonce tallied eight sacks and 43 combined tackles, including nine for a loss. He’s about to enter a contract year in which the Raiders’ defensive line could prove to be the team’s greatest strength.

“It’s just about trusting myself and understanding how my body moves and understanding my mechanics,” Koonce said. “My rush isn’t going to look like someone else’s. It comes down to opportunity, to the coaches trusting me to be out there and do my job. Just having recognition of everything.”

You figure with Crosby and the likes of free-agent signing Christian Wilkins, Koonce could thrive even more from the outside. You figure he could have a breakout 2024 season.

From the time Pierce assumed control of the team, Koonce had a Pro Football Focus rating of 83.4.

Play with personality

Koonce, a 2021 third-round pick out of Buffalo, will need to build on that showing if the Raiders’ unit up front is going to live up to all these lofty expectations.

“We understand how talented we are but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and try to win the whole season tomorrow,” Koonce said. “Basically, it’s one step at a time, day-by-day, get better at the little things. Just be ourselves and play with our personality.”

Malcolm Koonce should have a say in that. He’s in line for a big season.

Heck, his dad might even approve.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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