Raiders could have their best defensive line in decades

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Monday, April 1, 2024

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Howie Long and Maxx Crosby were catching up one day, with Crosby speaking wistfully of the Raiders' dominant defensive line of yore.

There was Long, eventually bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The legendary, late Lyle Alzado, for whom the aptly-named Lyle Alzado Rule -- which made it illegal to rip an opposing player's helmet off his head -- was named. Greg Townsend, the franchise's all-time sack leader. And the underappreciated Bill Pickel, a one-time first-team All-Pro at defensive tackle who racked up 36.5 sacks over a three-year period from 1984 to 1986.

It's a defensive line that keyed the Raiders to their most recent Super Bowl victory ... more than 40 years ago.

Ever the football historian, Crosby ruefully told Long, "I'm not sure where I'd play."

Long laughed.

"Don't worry," Long replied, "we'd find a place for you."

Such is the respect Crosby has already garnered from one of the Raiders' all-time greats. And while a D-line of Long, Alzado, Townsend and Pickel is a high bar to reach, Crosby -- a three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher -- has his sights set on it. And he'll have plenty of help.

Along with new teammate Christian Wilkins, a premier pass-rushing defensive tackle signed to a four-year, $110 million free agent contract with $84.75 million guaranteed, the Raiders re-signed DTs John Jenkins and Adam Butler. They also return defensive ends Malcolm Koonce -- who broke out with a career-high eight sacks last season -- and Tyree Wilson, last year's No. 7 overall draft pick who started to settle in during the second half of the season.

Yeah, the Raiders' defensive line has a certain throwback feel to it, a team strength for the first time in what seems eons in the streets of Silver and Blackdom.

In fact, the D-line projects to be the motor of the Raiders' revamped defense. And that's just fine with coach Antonio Pierce, who played nine seasons in the NFL at linebacker.

"Yeah, it makes life easy for me," Pierce said. "Because now [offenses], they're worried about blocking those four guys and not me, allowing me to be able to run. And that's what's going to happen for Robert Spillane as well. You're going to have to deal with Maxx Crosby, Malcolm Koonce, I mean, obviously, Christian.

"So now you're looking at [Divine] Deablo and Robert Spillane [and it] should free those guys up even more to make more plays, to be more productive on the other side of the field."

Spillane, a full-time starter for the first time in his career, is coming off a career-high 148 tackles -- the second-most in a single season in franchise history -- 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

See a connection?

As former Raiders All-Pro linebacker Rod Martin once told, Alzado was his favorite defensive end to play behind because he occupied so many blockers in front of him, allowing Martin to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

Meanwhile, a projected Las Vegas starting defensive line of Crosby, Wilkins, Jenkins and Koonce had a combined 32.5 sacks last season. Throw in Butler and Wilson and that sack total grows to 41.0.

Defensive tackles and defensive ends were responsible for 36.5 of the Raiders' 46 sacks last season, with the 79.3% rate ranking fifth in the NFL. The 36.5 combined sacks by DTs and DEs ranked sixth in the league. And the 46 total sacks were the 10th-most in franchise history.

Not bad. Especially since the addition of Wilkins should improve those figures, right?

Plus, Wilkins said he looked forward to taking on a mentor-type role with Wilson to get him going.

"I'm definitely going to make it a goal of mine to help him out as much as I can, be there for him in any way he needs me because I know how difficult it can be -- the pressures and all that other stuff, the expectations and all that," said Wilkins, who, like Wilson, was a high draft pick who did not have immediate success.

"So, I'm there for him in any way he needs because, like I said, I went through all of that and it was definitely a rough start. ... I didn't get down about anything, just kept working, kept grinding. I've seen [Tyree] in here ... and that's the first start. Just be around, get to work, put your head down, keep grinding and see where you end up."

If the defensive line is the key to the Raiders' defense, Wilkins might be the final piece.

At least, that's what Pierce hopes.

"[Wilkins' presence] makes life easier for us as coaches, I'll tell you that," Pierce said. "When you get good players, it makes life easy. But what it does, along with the other gentlemen that we brought back, John Jenkins and Adam Butler, that's a lot of depth to that D-line room. ... That's going to be our strong point of our team. From one to 10, we feel really good with those guys.

"But Christian, the energy, man, the personality, the love for the game. And now we've got somebody on the front [to match] with Maxx Crosby. Full-blown effort for 60 minutes. And that's what we're looking for. I think for us to get a player of his caliber, the way he's played over the last, really his entire career, it's going to be a blessing for Raider Nation."

Maybe even be mentioned in the same breath of Long's crew.

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