For Raiders Defense to Succeed, Mack Needs Help Up Front

Oakland's front seven boasts a dominating Mack and a number of question marks heading into 2017 training camp

Raiders’ defensive end Khalil Mack may be the NFL’s most dominant player, but how does his supporting cast rank?

That’s one of the big questions the Raiders will need to answer during this upcoming training camp and exhibition season.

Mack, in just three seasons, has surpassed all expectations. He’s the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has had 26 sacks over the past two seasons, even while opposing teams have done everything possible to try to contain him. In 2016, he had 26 quarterback hits, the second-most in the NFL. Plus, he disrupts blocking schemes and allows those around him to make plays.

But going into 2017, the Raiders’ front seven has yet to become an elite force in the league despite Mack’s presence.

Mario Edwards Jr. has been slowed by injuries. Aldon Smith has been suspended. The middle linebacker position has been a revolving door. Young players Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun have yet to show they can be difference-makers.

So, when the analytic website Pro Football Focus ranked every team’s defensive front seven this week, the Raiders – despite having the disruptive and talented Mack – came in at No. 15. He’s going to need some help this season for the Raiders’ defense to become as strong a unit as the team’s offense.

Wrote Louie Benjamin, of Pro Football Focus:

“Mack is the type of player you build a defense around and that opposing offenses must game-plan and account for on every single play. His 15.0 pass-rush productivity rate was the highest in the league last season, at any position. Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith and Shilique Calhoun round out the edge with a mix of experience and upside. Major concerns lie with the rest of the front seven, as no current Raiders linebacker or interior defender finished last season ranked in the top 70 for their position.”

It’s not realistic that Smith will provide any help in 2017. His up-and-down career continues to be derailed by off-the-field incidents, and any time he appears close to a reinstatement, something happens to stop it.

But it is realistic to believe that a healthy Edwards can be a huge boost, and that Irvin and Calhoun can be better in 2017. If third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes from UCLA shows he can be strong at defensive tackle, that would be a bonus.

But as players get ready to report for camp on July 27, the pecking order at several positions is unsettled. For now, PFF's assessment of the Raiders' unit as just middle-of-the-stream seems accurate.

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