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Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall, Arden Key stepping up in Khalil Mack's absence

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- A limo driver, Khalil Mack and Lions general manager Bob Quinn walked into a bar ...

No, this was not the start of some bad joke. Rather, they were the particulars in an intriguing, and unsubstantiated, report out of Detroit last weekend that had a limo driver presumably picking up the 2016 NFL defensive player of the year at the airport and purportedly taking him to meet with Quinn.

Trade talks? Tampering? Probably neither, as nothing came of it.

But imagine this scenario if/when Mack, whose holdout reached 35 days Thursday, reports to the Raiders: He is picked up at the Oakland airport and driven to the team facility by an Uber driver ... named Maurice Hurst.

It would be appropriate, and not just because the rookie fifth-round draft pick once proclaimed himself the best Uber driver in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he played for the Wolverines. But because Hurst and two other rookies on the Raiders defensive line in P.J. Hall and Arden Key have been driving Oakland's pass-rush this preseason ... with Mack away from the team holding out for a contract extension.

Small sample size, of course, but entering Thursday's exhibition finale at the Seattle Seahawks, the Raiders have Pro Football Focus' second-best team defense grade this preseason, second in pass-rush and third in coverage.

No doubt the Raiders would much rather have Mack in the fold and benefit from the help the young guns are providing in rushing the quarterback, but Hurst and Hall have been providing push in the interior as defensive tackles while Key is flashing his array of pass-rushing moves on the edge.

"Mo Hurst is going to be good, he's a very athletic guy ... he takes coaching," Bruce Irvin, who moved from outside linebacker to defensive end this offseason, said early in training camp.

"The rookies in our room are really going to help us. They really have no choice, we need them. Those guys are picking it up good and learning. They're coming out here and working their butts off. They're doing really good with their rookie duties. We need them and those guys are doing good."

As a team, the Raiders' combined 56 sacks over the past two seasons are the second fewest in the league. And last season, when they had 31 sacks, only half of one of those sacks came from an interior defensive lineman.

So Oakland made Hall, an FCS sack-happy phenom from Sam Houston State who had 42 sacks in his college career, their second-round pick. The Raiders got Key, who had 21 sacks in 31 career games at LSU but had off-the field issues, late in the third round. And Hurst, who was seen as a top-three talent by Pro Football Focus but saw his draft stock fall because of a heart issue that got him sent home from the combine, fell to Oakland in the fifth round.

"We all look at it like this is where we are going to be and stay for our whole career," Key said. "We are trying to [make a] dynasty here."

Grandiose goals, eh? Why not, especially with how dry the Raiders' pass-rush has been ... even with Mack on the line, taking over games with his 40.5 career sacks, including three straight seasons with at least 10.5 sacks.

But as coach Jon Gruden would tell you -- after first saying early in camp that the Raiders' defense was not especially hot stuff last season even with Mack -- Mack is that rare player who makes everyone else around him better.

"His playmaking, his leadership, his presence, great players, like Mack, have all of those things going for them," Gruden said Monday.

"They make offenses account for you. If you're going to account for a Khalil Mack, you probably have to double team the guy and someone else is not going to have to deal with that. So, there's a lot of things that a great player brings to your football team. Hopefully, that's sometime soon. ... This has obviously been a long a process that has been grueling for both parties and fans, and me personally. We're just hoping we can get him in here."

In the meantime, Hall, Key and Hurst will continue playing their respective games, and trying to win their respective matchups while setting a collective tone.

One that does more than simply serve as a placeholder until Mack, the Raiders hope, returns.

If that is before the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams on ESPN's Monday Night Football on Sept. 10, all the better.

"We're going to rotate," Hurst said of himself and Hall on the interior. "We're definitely going to have a group of guys that are ready to go. That's the job right now -- make sure that you're part of that rotation and earn that spot on the D-line.

"They don't want us to be rookies. They want us to come out and play right away and play effectively and come out and just dominate and do what they expected us to do. Just be a vital part of this defense."

Hall had a sack on his first NFL preseason snap, against the Detroit Lions, and later batted down a pass, thanks in part to pressure applied by Hurst.

Hurst, who was actually a running back in high school, has 1.5 sacks in three games, and Key, who had been slowed early in the preseason by a tweaked ankle, more than flashed against the Packers as the third guy in on a sack credited to Hurst and Fadol Brown.

"We love Key," Gruden said. "We've liked him since the draft process. We've felt lucky to get him where we got him. You go back two years ago and watch him at LSU, he's as good an edge rusher as there is in the country. He struggled a little bit his last season in Baton Rouge, but Chuck Smith, who is his private coach in the offseason, sent us a lot of videos and kept us up to speed. There are some things this kid can do that is very special. Hopefully, we get it full strength some day at the defensive end position and we can show our true colors."

There's that Mack reference again.

Keep in mind, none of the three are expected to start -- Tank Carradine is in Mack's spot at left defensive end, until Mack shows up, and the defensive tackles in the Raiders' 4-3 base defense are Mario Edwards Jr. and Ellis, with Irvin at right defensive end.

It's just ...

The rookies are expected to produce as if they've been there -- even a guy from a small school, like Hall, who has squatted 700 pounds and dealt with a pec strain at the start of camp.

"It's just something I have to handle," Hall said. "I'm ready for it. I don't fear anything. I'm ready for what comes here and ready to attack everything."

Convinced yet?

"That was the question mark coming from a small school: Can he handle this level?" Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "I've studied inside pass-rushers for a long time -- the size, the strength, the speed, all the characteristics that you're looking for the three-technique for us on our defense. All those things match up.

"I always tell the coaches, when you're doing evaluations of the college players, don't look at the helmet, look at the player and see what he's doing."

Guenther was referring to Hall. He might as well have been talking about Hall, Hurst and Key.