When Justin Tuck announced his retirement recently, the Raiders weren't surprised. They knew the longtime defensive end, 32, was coming to the end of his career.
They also prepared for it by selecting Mario Edwards Jr. in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Florida State. So, when Tuck’s season came to an early end because of injury, Edwards stepped in and played very well.
But now, as the Raiders look ahead to 2016, they’re not quite certain if Edwards will be able to pick up where he left off as a rookie when he played 14 games, was in on 41 tackles and had 2½ sacks, a forced fumble and two batted-down passes.
Though some criticized the Raiders for using their second pick on Edwards – who some labeled an under-achieving player in college – the 6-foot-3, 294-pound rookie played very well. He lost weight from college and dedicated himself to being fit and ready.
Yet Edwards suffered a neck injury and had to be shut down for the final two games of 2015. Now Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie isn’t sure what the timetable is for Edwards to return to the field.
Speaking to a writer for the team’s website this week, McKenzie said Edwards still is in line for more tests on his neck. McKenzie also noted that the injury actually is a long-term problem that was aggravated.
“It’s something that … You can call it genetic or whatever, but he’s had this since his youth, so they’re just trying to figure out what is the prognosis after some time goes by,” said McKenzie. “He’s playing the sitting-and-waiting game, just like us.”
Edwards was part of a strong crop of draft picks in 2015 that included wide receiver Amari Cooper, tight end Clive Walford, linebackers Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball and guard Jon Feliciano.
Edwards and Cooper were selected by the analytics website Pro Football Focus as top 10 candidates for its top rookie award. In December, a writer for Pro Football Focus said this about Edwards: “No rookie has played as well as Edwards the past six weeks. He has delivered excellent play wherever the Raiders have lined him up, with his ability to contribute in every phase of the game, adding to the Oakland defense in a big way.”
If Edwards can come back healthy and build on what he did as a rookie, the loss of Tuck will have minimal impact. But right now his long-term health is a concern, McKenzie said. He said he's not yet worrying about the prospect of Edwards missing the 2016 season or having his career in jeopardy.
“He’s a great person,” McKenzie told Raiders.com. “He’s a great player. I don’t even want to think along those lines right now.”