As offseason program begins, Raiders pinning hopes on defensive line

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Tyree Wilson (9) runs a drill during organized team activities at the Las Vegas Raiders Headquarters/Intermountain Health Performance Center in Henderson Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Wed, May 22, 2024 (2 a.m.)

As the Las Vegas Raiders went through their second day of organized team activities on Tuesday, the team’s blueprint for the 2024 season couldn’t have been more clear.

May 21: Raiders Organized Team Activities

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Carter Bradley (14) scrambles under pressure from defensive end Maxx Crosby (98) during organized team activities at the Las Vegas Raiders Headquarters/Intermountain Health Performance Center in Henderson Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Launch slideshow »

In one of the morning’s first drills, defensive end Maxx Crosby lined up opposite a tackle sled. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, the franchise’s big free-agent addition, got into a stance on the opposite end, and together he and Crosby went on the attack.

Between Crosby and Wilkins, the Raiders have nearly $138 million in guaranteed money devoted to harassing opposing quarterbacks. And given the outsized impact a ferocious pass rush can have on a game — see the 2011 New York Giants and the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for confetti-laden best-case scenarios — it seems like a wise investment.

Crosby and Wilkins are proven producers. In 2023, Crosby recorded 14.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss — the second straight season he has led the league in TFLs. Wilkins posted a career-high 9.0 sacks, which ranked him 17th among interior linemen. Together they should form one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing tandems.

Will that be enough to push Las Vegas into the playoff picture coming off last year’s 8-9 campaign? If it were just Crosby and Wilkins, perhaps not. A third blue-chip player along the defensive line, however, would give the Raiders a competitive edge over the rest of the NFL, a league where pocket disruptors are in high demand but short supply.

The wild card is the man who lined up with the second group after Crosby and Wilkins finished punishing the sled: second-year defensive end Tyree Wilson.

Wilson has the pedigree of a difference-maker. The Raiders selected him No. 7 overall in the 2023 draft, and his 6-foot-6, 275-pound frame appears to have been engineered in a laboratory for the sole purpose of chasing down quarterbacks. But a foot injury hampered him during that first offseason, and when the 2023 season commenced, he was already a step behind.

After notching 7.0 sacks in each of his final two college seasons, Wilson managed just 3.5 sacks in 17 games as a rookie.

Speaking to the media after Tuesday’s session, Wilson recalled his rocky transition to the NFL.

“I was definitely playing catch-up,” Wilson said. “(I'm) still limited in movement because of the foot.”

Heading into his second offseason as a pro, Wilson understands he could be a key to turning around the Raiders’ fortunes. The first step to a redemptive sophomore campaign? Health. Wilson reported that he’s feeling fresh, in part due to spending time with Crosby since the end of the 2023 season.

The team has eight more OTA practices scheduled over the next four weeks, which will lead into the opening of training camp.

Wilson said Crosby, a sixth-year veteran, had taken him under his wing and emphasized the kind of offseason dedication it will take to transform Wilson’s potential into production.

“He pushed me to be better,” Wilson said. “He was always asking me, like, ‘What are you eating? Who’s your nutritionist? How are you stretching?’ Just stuff to make me better.”

Is Wilson ready to make the leap? Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham cited Wilson’s strong finish to last season (2.0 sacks in the final four games) as reason to believe.

One trick the Raiders used to spark Wilson’s in-season development was moving him inside on select passing downs, a tactic Graham has employed in the past that forces edge rushers to focus on hand placement and technique in tight spaces.

Wilson said moonlighting as a defensive tackle honed his eyes and hands.

“You don’t have much time to think — it’s on you quick,” he said. “All you can do is react. When you work inside and then move back outside, everything slows back down.”

Swinging between two positions also gives Wilson an opportunity to be mentored by both of the Raiders’ defensive stalwarts.

“Maxx is more of a defensive end,” Wilson said. “With Coach Graham and the guys moving me inside, I can not just pick Maxx’s brain, but I can also pick Christian’s brain because he plays inside and [he’s] real dominant.”

Las Vegas ranked 10th in the NFL in sack percentage last year, nailing down opposing passers on 7.5% of dropbacks. The addition of Wilkins should make the pass rush even more dangerous. If Wilson can reach his potential, too, it would position the Raiders as one of the league’s most fearsome defenses.

After putting an underwhelming rookie season behind him, Wilson said he has fully adjusted to the NFL and is ready to produce like his star teammates on the defensive line.

“Coming in from college, you think you’ve got everything figured out,” he said. “But this year I just slowed back down, started taking the coaching and just come out here and work.”

Graham said the defensive line realizes what they’re being asked to do this season, and that they’re enjoying the offseason process.

“They’ve got great kinship or camaraderie going on in that D-line room,” Graham said. “It’s infectious and spreading throughout the defense. You can always feel those guys out there on the field, whether you hear them or you feel them. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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