Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | 2 a.m. | Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Maxx Crosby has been an impact player in all four of his NFL seasons despite the surrounding Raiders’ defense only once looking close to anywhere complementary around him.
That was two years ago when Las Vegas advanced to the postseason with quite a different cast of characters supporting Crosby than will be present this season. The Raiders’ defense didn’t rate above average in many categories that year either but had games and stretches of impressive play.
To Crosby, it’s not about statistics anyway; it’s about feel. And the defense in the 2021-2022 season felt different to him.
“We were all on the same page every down,” Crosby said recently. “Like I didn’t have to say anything to (defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson) and (we) knew what we were doing. I feel like it took a step back last year just as far as being a group.”
Reestablishing that camaraderie, especially along the defensive line, has been a focus of the Raiders’ offseason practices, which reach their peak starting today. The Raiders’ mandatory minicamp begins this morning at the team’s Henderson headquarters and runs through Thursday.
Raiders coach Josh McDaniels has generally played down the importance of spring practices, saying they’re mostly about communication and technique, but Crosby and fellow veteran defensive line leader Chandler Jones won’t let the importance be diminished in their unit.
Las Vegas wants to build a defense that’s led from front to back, which was a big problem a year ago when the front wasn’t good enough to keep it in games.
“Whenever you’re looking for success and you have things that are seasonal like football, for me, it’s been very advantageous to just flush it and erase it,” Jones said of last season. “Learn from your mistakes, see what you did wrong obviously, but you don’t want to get burned twice…This is a fresh year, and I’m very excited about it.”
Edge rusher Tyree Wilson, the team’s first-round draft pick this year, isn’t expected to practice at minicamp as he continues to recover from foot surgery but the rest of the Raiders’ defensive line group should be on the field. Everyone but Wilson participated in voluntary sessions the last two weeks, presumably because they all realize they can’t afford to miss a chance to make an impression on decision-makers like McDaniels and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
It’s a crowded group at the moment with 16 defensive linemen currently on the roster. Only 10 or 11 will make the official 53-man roster out of training camp and into a Week 1 game on Sept. 10 at Denver, and Crosby might be the only one whose role is fully secure.
Even Jones, one of the team’s highest-paid players in the middle of a three-year, $51 million contract, should see Wilson pushing for him for snaps. Wilson may play some on the interior line, but that’s where there’s a real logjam without any concrete answers for the Raiders.
Las Vegas has a pair of key contributors back from last year (Bilal Nichols and Jerry Tillery), a pair of draft picks from 2022 back (Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler) and a pair of selections from this year’s draft arriving (Byron Young and Nesta Jade Silvera).
And that’s not a comprehensive list, leaving out a handful of veteran free-agent acquisitions and undrafted free-agent signings.
“Competition is going to bring out the best in us,” Graham said. “I think that’s evident in the d-line room. It’s evident in all three levels of our defense right now. None of the coaches are going to complain about having a lot of good players competing for a spot because you’re going to get the best, and the competition started somewhat during the spring. It’s not the physical part yet — that’ll come with training camp — but I’m pleased with it.”
It’s anyone’s guess as to who ultimately claims the most prominent roles next to Crosby, Jones and Wilson. Tillery and Nichols may appear to be the favorites on the surface, but there’s a lot of buzz building on their younger counterparts.
There’s a sense that Young, who contributed in all four years at the University of Alabama but saved his best for last, was a steal late in the third round of this year’s draft. Coaches meanwhile have praised Farrell, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana State in 2022, for getting into better shape this offseason.
Crosby and McDaniels both mentioned Butler, a fifth-round out of Tennessee in 2022, unprompted when asked about the defensive line. Jones brought up Adam Plant and said the undrafted pass-rusher out of UNLV has a chance at the NFL level because of his work ethic.
“When the rookies came in, I just told them, ‘Follow me every single day. If you want to keep building your career, follow me. I’m going to do it the right way,’” Crosby said. “That’s really what it’s all about, putting your head down.”
The Raiders tried hard to develop a similarly hard-working, close-knit type unit going into last season too but the circumstances were different. McDaniels and Graham were new, and more time had to be put into learning their schemes and tendencies.
Now that the leaders like Crosby and Jones have a year in the system, there’s more familiarity and time to devote to other areas. They’re all-in on the idea that unifying the defensive line group will pay major dividends.
“You want to have that chemistry where I look to the guy next to me, and I won’t have to say anything, I can just give them a head nod and he knows exactly what that means,” Jones said. “That’s exactly the kind of things that you need to build around this time, because you won’t get that showing up in the fall. You have to do it now.”