Building a fearsome pass rush has been coach Jon Gruden’s white whale ever since trading away star edge rusher Khalil Mack just before his first season back as coach of the Raiders in 2018.
The Raiders have had the fewest sacks and quarterback pressures in the NFL over the past three seasons as draft picks and a few free agent signings have been unable to fill the vast void left by Mack.
Gruden and the Raiders hope they have finally addressed that weakness this offseason as bolstering the defensive line has been a high priority at the start of the new league year.
The biggest-ticket addition was the signing of edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue to a two-year, $26 million contract this week that will make him the key piece of the defensive line.
“You got a lot of defensive talent, defensive linemen that we can just gel together and put the knowledge that we have as far as playing the run and the pass rush that we can kind of turn this thing around and make it real special and get over the hump,” Ngakoue said Friday.
Along with Ngakoue, the Raiders also added 2017 No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas and Quinton Jefferson to improve the inside rush and brought back run-stopping defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and David Irving.
They join a group that already includes Maxx Crosby, who has 17 sacks in two seasons, 2019 fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell, last season’s free agent acquisition Carl Nassib, and 2018 draft picks Arden Key and Maurice Hurst.
Ngakoue is by far the most accomplished of that group. He joins Derrick Thomas, Aaron Donald and DeMarcus Ware as the only players to have at least eight sacks in each of their first five seasons and ranks near the top of the NFL in most pass-rushing stats over the past five seasons.
He has the 12th-most sacks (45 1/2), third-most strip sacks (15), sixth-most quarterback pressures (190) and second-most forced fumbles (18) in his five seasons as a pro.
Ngakoue’s production has fallen a bit the past two seasons with 55 pressures in 2019-20 after having 102 combined in 2017-18. But now he reunites with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was the head coach in Jacksonville when Ngakoue was a rookie in 2016.
“It was a no-brainer,” Ngakoue said of reuniting with Bradley. “He knows what I bring to this game. I feel like that’s a coach that knows how to utilize my skillset to make it super effective to help the team as best as possible. With Gus being here, I know it’s like another father figure for me is another guy that can help me out while I’m out here in the different coast. So it’s a blessing.”
Bradley has a tall task improving a defense that has a league-low 66 sacks and 357 quarterback pressures the past three seasons, according to SportRadar. The Raiders have allowed the most points and the second-most yards per play over that span.
Improving that defense will be key if the Raiders are going to get back to the playoffs for just the second time since losing the Super Bowl in the 2002 season.
“They have a great offense here,” Ngakoue said. “They already put that together. Now it’s time for the defensive side of the ball to help that offense out a lot.”
Ngakoue also said there are no lingering issues between him and Raiders guard Richie Incognito after they had a run-in during a playoff game in January 2018. Ngakoue accused Incognito of making “weak racist slurs” during the game, but the two made up a few weeks later at the Pro Bowl and Ngakoue said he’s excited to play with Incognito.
“That’s been put to rest since the Pro Bowl,” he said. “It’s part of the game. We all talk trash and stuff like that. Sometimes we go overboard with things. It’s all about forgiving. I feel that’s what’s wrong with the world nowadays. We look at problems that occur and we stick with that stigma. We don’t know how to forgive. I’m a forgiving dude. I’m ready to play for Richie. I’m the type of guy when we’re playing if somebody is Richie’s face or anything like that, I’m backing him up 100%. So all of that is out the window.”
NOTES: The Raiders signed backup RB Theo Riddick, who played four games for the team last season. … The Raiders won their appeal from the NFL and were given back their sixth-round pick in the draft. They had previously been docked that pick for violating COVID-19 protocols.