Mario Edwards Jr. is experiencing a professional first entering his third NFL season. The Raiders defensive line is fully participating in an offseason, something brand new during a promising NFL career plagued by injury.
Edwards spent his 2015 spring trying to improve draft stock, a successful effort that helped the Raiders select him No. 35 overall. Edwards Jr. spent this time last year tiptoeing through a neck injury suffered as a rookie that kept him out until mandatory minicamp. Edwards Jr. wasn't healthy long. He suffered a significant hip injury in the preseason opener that kept him out 14 games.
The Florida State alum is full healthy now, ready to realize great potential flashed during healthy stretches his rookie year.
"I'm ready to be a dominant player," Edwards Jr. said, "and pick up where I left off before I got hurt."
The Raiders' second week of OTAs starts Tuesday. He was practicing well in last week's open practice, lean and in tremendous shape during a preparation period that concludes with a mandatory minicamp in mid-June.
Edwards has been playing defensive end in the base defense, often in a closed position with Bruce Irvin off the edge. Edwards Jr. has always been a stout run defender, and should pair well with Irvin and Khalil Mack in that effort. Edwards Jr. will move inside on passing downs, and will work with those guys collapsing pockets from the middle.
"I'm really just trying to get more pass rush, get off the ball and penetrate, things of those nature," Edwards Jr. said. "I think I play the run pretty good, but just focusing on the other side with pass rush."
That's music to Jack Del Rio's ears. The Raiders head coach made it clear the Raiders must have a better internal pass rush, especially after Mack and Irvin had 18 sacks off the edge yet the Raiders had a league-low 25 sacks last year.
Del Rio expects Edwards Jr. to be a major contributor in 2017 and have his best season yet. The offseason will help, especially after missing so much time.
"At the end of the day, we didn't get a whole lot of Mario on the field," Del Rio said. "Excited to get him going. His conditioning and the work he's putting in and the price he's paying and all of those things. I think the natural development, the maturity of playing that position, I think that we expect him to take a big step forward."
Staying healthy would fill that prediction, but Edwards Jr. wants much more. He's motivated to get his career going strong.
"That's exactly what I see," Del Rio said. "He loves the game. Mario loves to play football. For him to be healthy right now and be with his buddies, his teammates, I think is huge for him. We missed him last year. He's an impactful player. He's getting himself ready to have a really big year for us."
Edwards Jr. has trained all offseason, both in Alameda and with his father and former NFL player Mario Edwards Sr. in Tallahassee, Fla. The returns are clear. Edwards Jr. is leaner than recent seasons, and has done detail work in an attempt to stay healthy and productive. He has enjoyed the work, even without a spotlight and the season still months away. Missing significant time makes him appreciate any opportunity to play the game he loves.
"There's a difference when you know you just don't want to practice and don't want to play, or whatever," Edwards Jr. "And then when you actually can't go out there and do it, it just makes you hungry to get back and go out there and compete with your friends."