NAPA – General manager Reggie McKenzie has said several times this offseason the Raiders defense is far better with Mario Edwards Jr. active and healthy. Head coach Jack Del Rio has echoed that sentiment. Even players admit to salivating at the thought of Edwards providing an internal pass rush.
That hasn't happened often. Edwards hasn't made an impact since 2015, when he suffered a Week 15 neck injury that put his football future in question. He came back strong but a hip issue arose last season that kept him out the first 14 games and limited impact in the remaining few.
Edwards' talent is unquestioned. His availability always seems uncertain. That's why fans thought the worst when he started training camp on the non-football injury list. A source told NBC Sports California a minor hamstring issue would last long, but his absence still invoked a chorus of "Here we go again."
Edwards Jr. wasn't worried. He knew he'd be back soon. The third-year pro practiced for the first time on Thursday, though he didn't do much. The Raiders will ease him back into action, especially when his opening workout was conducted in pads.
Edwards's first order of business is to string practices together.
"It's big," Edwards said. "Staying healthy is pretty big for me, but I am back, so I am ready to play."
He was at this stage last year, encouraged by a solid start to training camp. Then he got hurt in the first exhibition at Arizona, and he spent all season dealing with injury.
He's healthy now and ready to make the impact expected of him. Edwards had 42 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie, his last healthy stretch. The Raiders love his versatility, where he can play end in the base defense and slide inside on passing downs. The Raiders lacked a consistent internal pass rush and steady run defense off one edge, issues Edwards can correct with a return to form.
The Raiders are better with him and Edwards knows it, but says it'll take a solid rotation to improve up front.
"Definitely. I believe that," Edwards said. "We have great guys that we drafted this year as well, so the great thing about it is you don't just pinpoint Bruce (Irvin), (Khalil) Mack, me or any of the guys. We have new guys that we can rotate. I agree with what the coach is saying, but we also have guys that can rotate in as well."
A rotation is key but Edwards is the centerpiece inside, someone who can change fortunes up front and make others around him better. Assuming, of course, that he's healthy.
-- The Raiders agreed to terms on a contract with linebacker Rufus Johnson after a Thursday workout, according to his agent. The former New England Patriot and New Orleans Saint got into a car accident on the way to the airport, but emerged unharmed and got a job with the Raiders. Johnson is primarily an edge rusher, and has plenty of energy getting after the quarterback.
-- In addition to Edwards, edge rusher Bruce Irvin practiced for the first time Thursday and was taken off the non-football injury list.
-- WR Amari Cooper returned after missing Tuesday and staying dormant for the Wednesday off day no worse for the wear. He made several catches working with the first unit.
-- Head coach Jack Del Rio said Thursday's practice was crisper than his team's previous effort, which came prior to an off day. The defense made some plays, including two interceptions of Derek Carr. David Amerson and Dexter McDonald picked him in the same period.
-- The Raiders held one-on-one passing drills, with some good battles across units. The starting interior offensive line was predictably dominant, with strong showings from Gabe Jackson, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson.