Training camp is in the books for the Oakland Raiders and they can now finish up the preseason. While we probably won’t see much of the starters until the regular season gets here, it gives younger players and rookies a great chance to prove that they belong with the team. With depth charts and final roster cuts just around the corner, this is the last chance for players to earn a week one starting spot or a roster spot in general.
Two players that are making a case that they should be starters are second-year defensive linemen Maurice Hurst and Arden Key. Both players had productive college careers but fell in the 2018 draft because of non-football related issues. Key and Hurst have the potential to be major steals for the Raiders and could play big roles in a revamped defense in 2019. New defensive line coach Brenston Buckner is as no-nonsense as they come and he could be just the right guy to bring out the best in them.
Arden Key Becoming All-Around Player
Whether it was fair or not, Arden Key was the guy who was put in place to take over for Khalil Mack after he was traded. Very few rookies could possibly live up to that production. The problem was that Key didn’t really have much production at all. He only notched one sack on the entire season.
“Coach [Brenston Buckner] had a whole clip of my almost 13 sacks,” said Key back during OTAs. “It was very nerve-racking because I could’ve had a better first year, but we all learn from those mistakes.”
He was able to get a sack against the Los Angeles Rams in the first preseason game, but that was against backups. That being said, it’s a good sign that he was able to finish the job. The Raiders are absolutely desperate for a pass rush. They don’t have a single proven pass rusher on the entire roster. Rookie Clelin Ferrell is supposed to fill in that void, but it’s safe to say that team would prefer it if they got pressure from more than just the rookie. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther offered some insight as to how Key is coming along.
“I think he’s done a good job both in the run and he’s been active in the rush,” said Guenther when he was asked about Key’s development. “He looks a lot stronger to me. Hopefully, he’s another guy that can keep getting better because he can play first, second and third down now, so that’s good to see.”
This actually a pretty interesting quote from Guenther, because it was starting to look like Key, might be regulated to just pass-rushing situations. He added strength this offseason and claimed he didn’t lose any of his speed. It’s easy to forget that Key is only a few years removed from an 11 sack season while he was at LSU. Before he battled injuries during his junior year, Key was projected to be the number one overall pick by Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports. While he certainly didn’t look like a number one overall pick during his rookie season, he’s had a lot of time to work out any kinks. With added talent along the defensive line, he should get a lot more chances to get to the quarterback. If he can become the all-around player that Guenther seems to think he’s becoming, the Raiders could have a seriously strong duo with Ferrell and Key at the defensive end spots.
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Maurice Hurst Dominating Preseason
Speaking of players that fell drastically in the 2018 draft, no player had it tougher than Maurice Hurst. He was considered a top-20 player coming out of Michigan. However, a heart condition led to him sliding to the Raiders all the way in the fifth round. It was still a risk considering that the day may come where Hurst has to make an early retirement because of his heart. That being said, there have been no indications that it’s a lingering issue and Hurst played incredibly well for Oakland in 2018.
The rookie led the team with four sacks in 2018. You know who also had four sacks in his rookie season? Khalil Mack. That’s not trying to say that Hurst is comparable to Mack, it’s just pointing out that he could blow up in 2019. He’s already been lighting up the preseason. Pro Football Focus named him to their NFL Team of the Week: 2019 NFL Preseason Week 2. Here’s what they said about him:
“Hurst was on the field for 16 pass-rushing snaps this week, registering a hit and two hurries. It’s been an impressive season from Hurst so far, who is looking to build upon a solid rookie campaign that saw him produce a PFF grade of 72.4 on 472 snaps after falling to the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft.”
It’s exciting how much he’s producing as a pass rusher. It’s becoming more and more important to generate pressure from the inside. He hasn’t gotten a sack in the preseason just yet, but his time will definitely come. If Ferrell can live up to the hype and Key can improve, that should free up a lot more space for Hurst to make plays. Don’t be surprised if he’s one of the biggest stars on the Raider defense in 2019.