Rebuilt Las Vegas Raiders defensive line searching for success, identity

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Squad goals?

There was the Fearsome Foursome, for starters. The Purple People Eaters come to mind, as does the No-Name Defense, Doomsday, the Orange Crush and, of course, the Steel Curtain.

Epic and colorful nicknames all, to describe transcendent defenses of decades past and defensive fronts in particular. This year's Las Vegas Raiders defensive line, an eclectic mix of youngsters seemingly on the come, high-profile guys looking for a fresh start and an established star or two, doesn't need a moniker.

No, these Raiders would simply like to improve upon last year's production. And that shouldn't be that hard to do.

Consider: Las Vegas had 21 sacks in 2020, ranking 29th in the 32-team NFL. And of those 21 sacks, 16 came from the defensive line, 14.5 from edge rushers (per ESPN Stats and Information, the 16 sacks from the defensive line ranked 22nd in the NFL, with the Philadelphia Eagles leading with 40 sacks from their D-line and the Tennessee Titans last with eight).

Yes, it's early -- the Raiders have yet to play a preseason game -- but one of the new guys on the edge says the vibe is similar to what he felt with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017.

"It was just a special energy in the room," Yannick Ngakoue said of those Jaguars, who finished second in the NFL that year with 55 sacks and advanced to the AFC title game. "Guys had each other's back. When one guy's doing great on the defensive line, it makes the others have to pick up the pace. Also, it makes you want to be a better teammate."

Early in camp, Ngakoue -- who has had at least eight sacks in each of his first five NFL seasons but is also on his fourth different team in a calendar year -- has been at right defensive end. Maxx Crosby has been on the left side, with Quinton Jefferson and Johnathan Hankins on the interior.

Ngakoue, who had a career-high 12 sacks in 2017 and led the league with six forced fumbles, was this offseason's big-ticket addition. He said he wants to be a "Rhodes Scholar" as a student of the game while joining the echelon of Khalil Mack and Von Miller as elite pass rushers.

Also ...

"I want the league to recognize us as that defensive line group is something that you can't mess with," he said.

Keep in mind, a feature of coordinator Gus Bradley's defense is to throw waves of pass rushers at opposing offenses. And a benefit of said philosophy is fresher pass rushers late.

"That fourth-quarter rush, it's been a little bit of an emphasis with us throughout the offseason and in training camp, so the guys are gearing up for that part of it," Bradley said.

"One of the big things that we talked about was you can never have enough rushers. That's just kind of our mindset since the time I was at Seattle, and if you can come in waves. You got a first group and then get the second group out there, and it's very, very good for morale and the room because everybody knows they're playing and they have an impact on the game, that's extremely important."

Paging edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, then, a No. 4 overall draft pick who is conspicuous by his absence from the first-team front four (coach Jon Gruden says Ferrell's best pass rush might be from the inside). And Solomon Thomas, a former No. 3 pick who is the classic tweener. And defensive tackles Darius Philon, who last played in the NFL in 2018, and Matt Dickerson, who has zero sacks in three seasons. And rookie edge rusher Malcolm Koonce, a third-round draft pick from Buffalo (yes, Mack's old school). And defensive end Carl Nassib, as well as recent signee Gerald McCoy, who might have forgotten more pass-rush moves than the other defensive tackles have learned.

It has created for some interesting talk around the D-line room.

"Great competition," Nassib said. "Maxx and Yan and Cle and Malc and Gerri [Green]; they do stuff that I'm trying to copy them, they are trying to copy me. And I can sometimes kind of get offended when they take my move, but then I'm like, 'Alright, I got to take yours now.'

"So, competition only makes you better. Complacency really doesn't do anything for you in football or in life, so I love the competition. We're all trying to get out there. We don't want to have any fall off between any rotation of guys."

Versatility, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said, is key.

"There's guys that can play the under, and that can play the nose," Marinelli said. "I ask each man to do that -- make sure you know two positions. Some of these unders could go play the big end for us, need be, because they're all pretty athletic.

"We've got nice speed, good athletic guys who work. So that allows you to do a little bit more."

Like, for example, moving Ferrell inside as a nickel pass rusher, as Gruden said. Or swing Thomas outside on occasion.

"We have a lot of talented rushers, guys that can be like, 'Hey, how's my rush? Hey, what do I need to work on?'" Thomas said. "You can't ask for more than that as a teammate ... we all feed into each other and we all help each other out, which is why we're going to be such a good defensive line this year."

Ngakoue feels it -- "I just feel like I was a Raider all along," he said, "it just took me a while to get here." -- as does Crosby.

"They're ready to prove what they can do," said Crosby, who led the Raiders with seven sacks last season after getting 10 sacks as a rookie. "They've all had success in this league but we all want to do it together and be the best ... four equals one at all times.

"Personally, I'm sick of waiting. I just want to be the full version of Maxx Crosby that I envision myself being ... I'm fired up about the room. We have a lot of potential, but I'm sick of saying that word."

Let alone trying to come up with a clever nickname for a rebuilt group.