Raiders find 'mystery and intrigue' in class of pass-rushers

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- No disrespect to Josh Mauro or even to Alex Barrett, it’s just that coach Jon Gruden is thinking on a different level when it comes to the Oakland Raiders’ dearth of defensive ends.

“It’s Arden Key and me,” Gruden growled playfully at Raiders general manager Mike Mayock. “That’s all we’ve got. What are you going to do, Mike?”

Indeed, with only three defensive ends under contract, edge rusher is the most glaring need on a team that had a league-low 13 sacks last season ... after trading away Khalil Mack in the midst of his holdout, a week before the season opener. And with four selections in the first 35 picks of the NFL draft, and a purportedly deep and talented class of pass-rushers available, the Raiders must strike early and often, right?

Oakland has the No. 4 overall pick, as well as picks at Nos. 24, 27 and 35.

And yet...

“It’s a mysterious group of guys, it really is,” Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings. “Obviously, (Nick) Bosa’s a great player (but) he’s an underclassman who didn’t even play much. A lot of these guys’ play-time is not what you want it to be -- they don’t play a lot of snaps. They’re underclassmen, also, and a lot of these guys haven’t even done an individual workout. They haven’t even run yet.

“So, there’s a lot of mystery and intrigue, for sure.”

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr.’s top five defensive ends are Ohio State’s Bosa, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson.

At outside linebacker, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Florida State’s Brian Burns and Florida’s Jachai Polite are his top three, with Allen his No. 3 overall prospect and Burns at No. 19.

“On paper it looks great,” Gruden said of the incoming pass-rushers. “When you start studying the tape you have to decide for yourself. Some of these guys, like I just said, are a bit mysterious ... and a lot of them haven’t even completed their pro workout and weren’t in college all-star games.”

Gruden likes to look in a player's face, peer into his eyes to get a sense of his passion. Gruden made it a point to note that in coaching at the Senior Bowl in January, he got to meet Ferguson and Sweat and came away impressed.

Maybe not so blown away to take either at No. 4 overall, but perhaps later.

And therein lies more, ahem, mystery. Because while a pass rush coming off the edge is most definitely needed and desired, getting a transcendent talent to push the pocket inside would help free up guys outside.

Paging Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, ranked the No. 2 overall prospect by Kiper, and Houston’s Ed Oliver, ranked No. 8.

As Mayock put it, they can make a draft pick with “better conviction” if they felt comfortable with the job they did addressing a certain need in free agency.

“Now, there’s common sense involved with that,” Mayock said. “If two guys are ranked fairly close, (but) one is a higher position of need, it’s kind of obvious (who you pick).

“If you’re talking about two different levels of player is sitting there when you’re on the board, and one of them is a position of need but he’s (ranked) significantly less, you can’t do that. You dilute your talent level a little bit.”

Meaning, if, say, both Williams and Allen are available at No. 4 and the Raiders have Williams ranked significantly higher than Allen, Williams is the call. Even though edge rusher is more of a need than defensive tackle (the Raiders currently have six defensive tackles under contract in Justin Ellis, Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins, P.J. Hall, Eddie Vanderdoes and Gabe Wright). Same with Oliver, whose skill set might actually translate better to defensive end than nose tackle, where Houston had him lining up.

Besides, the likes of Ferrell and Ferguson might still be available later in the first round.

And they would join whom? Yes, Key, who had one sack as a rookie last season, Mauro, who had one sack for the New York Giants in 2018, and Barrett, who had two sacks in eight games this spring for the San Diego Fleet of the American Alliance Football league, which suspended all operations last week.

Gruden again name-checked his third-round pass-rusher who played in all 16 games while starting 10 a year ago.

“I want to see Arden Key play better,” Gruden said, his voice rising. “I want to see our second-year players play better. They got to play a lot last year, big deal. I want to see them play great this year. I’ll start the conversation right there -- Arden’s got to play better, he’s got to get stronger, he’s got to play better.

“They don’t grow on trees. These defensive ends, they don't grow on trees. I know I've been criticized for trading one of the best (in Mack), but we're going to look hard to replenish and add players at that position. That's for sure.”