September 1st, 2018, a day that will live in infamy for Oakland Raiders fans. Jon Gruden did the unthinkable and traded the best player the Raiders have had in years, Khalil Mack. While the future remains to be seen, the Raiders rookie defensive linemen Gruden drafted have not been producing.
Whether or not Gruden got fair compensation in the deal for Mack, or whether or not the Raiders could have afforded to pay him the lucrative contract he was commanding was beside the point. When there is a generational pass rusher that is probably headed to Canton eventually, the organization must find a way to pay him. Especially in the NFL today, where there is such an emphasis on passing, getting to the quarterback, has become a top priority defensively.
Pass rushers along with quarterbacks are the premium positions in the modern NFL. These guys are physical anomalies, and Mack is the rarest of talents. As Gruden has learned the hard way, with no pass rush, there is a 0 percent chance of competing on defense in the NFL.
A big problem for the Raiders over the years has been the interior pass rush. This was addressed by the former coaching staff as well as Gruden when he took the head coaching job for the second time.
Gruden addressed this need by drafting P.J. Hall with his second round pick and Maurice Hurst in the fifth round. Hurst has flashed at times but Hall has been underwhelming. However, Hall has been battling injuries both players have been thrown to the fire right off the bat.
Interior pass rush has also proved to be very important in the NFL today, however, it is very unlikely either of them become a dominant force such as Aaron Donald.
The Raiders also selected Arden Key from LSU in the third round. At 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, Key is built more like an outside linebacker but he showed in college to be an effective pass rusher.
Even though he had some off the field problems at LSU, Key was brought in to be mentored by then-Raider, Bruce Irvin. Before Irvin was waived, he had some glowing praise for Key.
The assumed initial plan was Key would be a situational rusher behind Mack and Irvin. However, like most of General Manager Reggie McKenzie‘s players, they are both gone.
Key has shown some signs of ability but for the most part has looked outmatched. To be fair, he was not ready to be an NFL starting defensive end right away. Key has gotten burned countless times against the run because he just is not strong enough to set the edge. He has just one sack and eight quarterback hits, but again this has not been a situation conducive to his success. He needed some time to learn and grow behind veterans like Irvin and Mack.
The 2018 Raiders defense could prove to be one of the worst defenses in NFL history. It is probably more on the questionable personnel Gruden has rostered, than the defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther.
Guenther has not been great either. His unit can’t rush the passer, can’t cover, can’t tackle, and it has just been hard to watch. Teams are putting on clinics week in and week out on this group but it has to be questioned, is this valuable experience? The Raiders feature young starters playing large snap quantities each week at every level of the defense.
These lessons learned are ugly right now, but the experience is the best teacher and the young defensive players are getting no short of it this season. Even though the Raiders are on a collision course for the number one overall pick, it is not crazy that a few new additions to the young defense coupled with a “next step” by a few of these rookies could bring massive improvements in 2019. However, like most of the Gruden experiment, nothing can be predicted. Just ask Khalil Mack.