The Raiders have a good problem on their hands.
“Thus far, we as a staff think that ‘Jelly’ is ahead of Dan, but we’re a long way from lining it up in September. ‘Jelly’ is off to a great start. Dan’s a good football player. Competition brings out the best. Right now as we’re stacking up our practices, ‘Jelly’ is a little bit ahead of Dan. Like I said, it’s way too early to be worrying about where it ends up. I think clearly you’re looking at competition.”
This is a major contrast to the year Ellis was drafted, and then head coach Dennis Allen responded to a question of why teams were running on the Raiders so much by saying “Wouldn’t you?”
Ellis and Williams are both run stuffers and block eaters, who can move the pocket with the right supporting cast. A healthy Mario Edwards Jr., along with Khalil Mack and others, means that the personnel are there.
It’s just up to the technique and schemes to maximize production. And new linebacker Bruce Irvin says he thinks the Raiders defense has everything necessary to mimic the production of the best Seattle defense:
“Yeah, it’s pretty much the same. You look at Seattle, we weren’t always the Seattle team that you see right now. We started as a bunch of young guys, like we are right here. I think as long as we continue to work hard, everybody believe in one thing and that’s playing for each other, then I think we’re going to turn this thing around and be a pretty good team this year.”
The Raiders likely have already turned the corner. After winning only 11 games over three seasons, they went 7-9 in 2015 and might have done more with a few things going their way, especially injuries.
But one thing the team could use a boost in is sack production.
Oakland ranked 14th in the league last season, tied with Tampa Bay and Washington with 38 sacks, and needs to add about seven or eight more to rank among the league’s best. More than half of the team’s sacks were credited to players listed as linebackers.
To be fair, Mack lined up at defensive end quite a bit, but the stat remains a vivid portrait of a team lacking ferocity up front. Del Rio said:
“Being physical in the trenches is where a lot of what we do starts. Really determined to ensure that we have good, physical offensive and defensive line play and I think that’s the foundation of everything that you want to do as a football team.”
It’s worth noting that the defensive secondary should produce much more this year than last — when tight ends would burn through, and there was little answer for a truly talented opposing receiver.
But the rush still has to happen. And Ellis beating out Williams as the top defensive tackle is a good sign for the Raiders’ unheralded meat grinders that do the dirty work for a living.
Still Neiron Ballin’
Neiron Ball is healthy, and feeling good.
Smiling ear to ear, as his locked hair covered his cheeks and happiness spewed from his pores like the sweat one hour prior, Ball said:
“I feel great, I feel great. It feels so good to be back. It’s been so long since I’ve been on the field. That was like week 6, week 7. And it feels so good man.”
Ball was onto a big role with the Raiders until a knee injury knocked him out of a week 6 tilt versus San Diego, and kept him out for the year, though he wasn’t placed on injured reserve until December.
Ball says that he began to feel like himself “around OTA’s” but wanted to ease back in and err on the side of caution, having dealt with other serious injuries before:
“There’s not need for me to be in a rush.”
There’s a substantial amount of competition in camp this season, much more than his rookie season after the Raiders signed three big named defensive players and added four more in the draft — three in the first three rounds.
If Ball can get back up to speed and continue where he left off, though, there’s no reason for concern. He should be just fine.
The Raiders’ 2016 camp has a different feel than others in the past. Not because there’s confidence or expectations, but mostly in the way drills are being conducted.
The team seems to be taking every precaution to avoid unnecessary injury. There have yet to be any 1-on-1 drills between offensive and defensive linemen, which doesn’t mean there won’t be, but those often speak volumes about what a player can do on gameday.
Khalil Mack beat Donald Penn one out of every three snaps in camp last season, and he finished the season with 15 sacks — five coming against the division rival Denver Broncos —for example.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.