With the fifth edition of our Positional Review series, we take a deep dive into arguably the most productive group for the Raiders in 2021: the defensive line. Combining perhaps the best pass rushing duo in the league with solid production in the middle, Las Vegas boasted a highly productive defensive line that helped pave the way to the Raiders’ first postseason appearance since 2016.
Defensive Tackles: Johnathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson, Gerald McCoy, Darius Philon, Solomon Thomas, Kendall Vickers
Defensive Ends: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Malcolm Koonce, Carl Nassib, Yannick Ngakoue
This group begins and ends with pass rusher Maxx Crosby. The heart and soul of this Raiders team, “Mad Maxx” enjoyed a massive breakout season, recording eight sacks, 56 tackles and 108 quarterback pressures, earning him his first Pro Bowl appearance and second-team All-Pro honors.
Crosby’s improvement as a pass rusher and intensity as a leader was on full display in front of a national audience during a Week 1 home victory over the Baltimore Ravens. In that game, Crosby was a force of destruction, registering two sacks, six tackles, two tackles for a loss and five quarterback hits. From the onset, Crosby’s importance to the improvement of the Raiders defense was evident and his importance never waned.
While his on field production was key to the Raiders’ playoff push, his locker room leadership was just as important.
Following Las Vegas’s Wild Card loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Crosby would talk about the progress of his team.
“I’m just so proud of this team. We have so many guys that just fought and bought into what Coach Rich (Bisaccia) gave us. Coach Marinelli, Coach Bradley, everybody. They stuck with us and we stuck with them.”
“It’s tough but I just know we’ll be back. I just know we’ll be back and we’ll have another opportunity and that’s going to push me this offseason.”
Pairing with Crosby was newcomer Yannick Ngakoue, who signed a two-year, $26 million contract with Las Vegas last offseason. Ngakoue proved to be worth every penny, logging 10 sacks and two forced fumbles. Crosby and Ngakoue would become one of the fiercest pass-rushing duos in the entire league and quickly turned what had been a weakness for the Raiders over the last few years into a major strength.
During his end-of-season press conference, Ngakoue was asked about his first season with the Raiders, with all of the off-field turmoil and tribulations the team would go through.
“My first year, personally for me, I would say just amazing, a great feeling to be here,” Ngakoue said. “I feel welcomed. It feels like home. Adversity is going to happen within all organizations. Things happen. It’s all about how you respond and I feel like we responded really well as a group, as a whole organization. I am just blessed to be here.”
Clelin Ferrell, the former fourth-overall pick in 2019, continued to disappoint in 2021. Expected to be the pass-rushing heir to Khalil Mack, Ferrell has yet to make a major impact and 2021 saw his total snaps dip drastically with the arrival of Ngakoue and emergence of Crosby. Only registering 1.5 sacks and 10 quarterback pressures, more is expected out of such an early draft pick.
Carl Nassib and rookie Malcolm Koonce proved to be solid depth behind the two starters at EDGE. Nassib’s biggest play of the season was during the Week 1 victory over the Ravens, in which he forced a fumble on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, which was recovered by Las Vegas and led to the game-winning overtime touchdown.
Koonce, a third-round pick in 2021, was seen as a rookie that had tremendous athleticism but needed time to learn the position. However, it looks like Koonce has a good grasp of it, making the most of his limited snaps and giving the team confidence that he can be a difference maker sooner rather than later.
Being flanked by two tremendous talents on the outside allowed the interior of the Raiders defensive line in 2021 to step up in a major way. Signing a slew of free agents during the offseason to shore up the middle of the defense certainly helped as well.
One of those signings was Solomon Thomas, the former third-overall pick in 2017 by the San Francisco 49ers. Despite never living up to expectations while in San Francisco, Thomas proved to be a key role player in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s defense. Possessing the versatility to play both on the interior and out wide, Thomas had his most productive season since his rookie year, producing four sacks and two forced fumbles.
Quinton Jefferson, another free agent signing last season, proved to be an underrated pick up for the Raiders. Starting all 18 games, including the playoffs. Jefferson saw career highs in tackles (47) and sacks (4.5) and was a key cog for an improving Las Vegas defense. Jefferson’s normal running mate, Johnathan Hankins, was one of the few returning defensive linemen for the Raiders from the previous year. The hulking nose tackle was a solid run defender, and while his stat sheet may not be eye popping, Hankins was a pivotal piece in the defensive line rotation.
Veteran Gerald McCoy was inked to a one-year deal in August of last year and was expected to provide veteran leadership to a young defense while working his way on the field. Unfortunately, an injury would end his season prematurely and McCoy was placed on injured reserve the following month.
Darius Philon, who hadn’t been in the league since 2019 due to off-field issues, became a key player in the defensive line’s rotation in place of McCoy. He would play in 11 games, starting two of them, while registering two sacks and recovering two fumbles. Philon himself would miss several games due to injury and the team called up Kendal Vickers in November. Vickers, a familiar face with the Raiders, was serviceable, but did nothing of note for the Raiders 2021 defensive line unit.
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