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Raiders’ free agency preview: Pushing the pocket up front is a priority




ALAMEDA — It’s no secret what the Raiders’ most glaring need is this offseason.
Last year they mustered only 13 sacks as a team, fewest in a single season since the 2008 Chiefs finished with just 10. By contrast, the next lowest teams in sacks (the Patriots and Giants) had 30.
Jon Gruden traded Khalil Mack, his best player and pass-rusher, a week before the regular season started, and 2018 proceeded accordingly for an anemic Raiders defensive line. The Raiders released Bruce Irvin midway through the season, and the combination of rookies Arden Key, Mo Hurst, P.J. Hall and veterans Frostee Rucker, Johnathan Hankins and Clinton McDonald were anything but imposing.
As free agency approaches on March 13, the Raiders will be on the lookout for defensive linemen who can push the pocket — and finish — as well as those who can stop the run.
Hurst, a rookie fifth-round draft pick out of Michigan, missed the final three games of the season and still led the Raiders with four sacks. Key only registered one, despite defensive coordinator Paul Guenther saying he should’ve had around 10 if he could just finish plays.
Look for the Raiders to address their bare bones defensive line with their first pick in the draft, whether they stay pat at No. 4 or trade back with a quarterback-needy team. Even still, this defensive line needs all the help it can get, either on the edge or the interior.
Who’s here: DT Justin Ellis, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Maurice Hurst, DT P.J. Hall, DE Arden Key, DT Gabe Wright, DE James Cowser
The defensive line market
Franchise players: DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas), Jadeveon Clowney (Houston), Frank Clark (Seattle), Dee Ford (Kansas City).
Trey Flowers, New England: Although a bit undersized at 6-2, 265, Flowers had 7 1/2, 6 and 7 sacks over the past three seasons and was a standout for a championship team. He’s considered a very good run defender as well and adept at stripping the ball, forcing three fumbles last season.
Justin Houston, Kansas City: Released by the Chiefs Sunday rather than pay $15.3 million due from 6-year, $101 million mega deal signed in 2015. He’s not the player he was in 2014 when he had 22 sacks, but 18 1/2 sacks over the past two years are not be discounted and someone will pay the 6-3, 258-pound edge rusher.
Za’Darius Smith, Baltimore:  Technically an outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense, Smith (6-4, 272) is best suited going forward rather than dropping in coverage. He had 8 1/2 sacks for the Ravens last season, hit the quarterback 24 times and is only 26 years old.
Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit: An excellent pass rusher at 6-foot-6, 272 pounds, but only every other year. Had 14 1/2 sacks in 2015, and two in 2016. Then had 12 in 2017 and just four last season in seven games. If healthy, former first-round pick can apply pressure from the edge. Had 48 career sacks and will be 30 years old.
Preston Smith, Washington:  Smith, at 6-5, 265, has has 16 1/2 sacks in his last 48 games with Washington and the thinking goes if he was simply turned loose as a pass rusher rather than have duties as an outside linebacker, he could be a double-digit sacker. Still only 26, but the downside is he’s coming off a four-sack season and he could cost a bundle for seven sacks or so.
Cameron Wake, Miami: Ten-year veteran is 37 years old but still has some juice left as  rotational rusher at 6-3, 263. Had six sacks last season, five years of double-digit sacks and has 98 sacks in his career. Should find a home somewhere with a one-year contract.
Others: Cameron Wake (Miami), Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), Bruce Irvin (Atlanta), Benson Mayowa (Arizona), Frostee Rucker (Raiders), Alex Okafor (New Orleans),  Michael Johnson (Cincinnati).

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Tackle
Franchise player: Grady Jarrett (Atlanta)
Ndamukong Suh, L.A. Rams: Here we go again. A physical force at 6-4, 313 pounds but had just 4 1/2 sacks even though Aaron Donald was drawing double teams alongside. Got $14 million from the Rams, it’s possible his huge money days are over after cashing with Miami in 2015. An end in 3-4 but strength is pushing from inside.
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Sheldon Richardson, Minnesota: Not playing up to level of his early days with Jets and he won’t likely get $8 million as he did last season, but Richardson (6-3, 295) can still defend the run and occasionally push the pocket. Started all 16 games last season for first time since 2014 with the Jets.
Malik Jackson, Jacksonville: A free agent cautionary tale, Jackson signed a six-year deal worth a maximum of $90 million in 2016 after starring for the Broncos Super Bowl champions. Jackson (6-5, 290) played reasonably well in 2016-17 but dropped off last season with 3 1/2 sacks in 16 games with 10 starts. Will be looking to prove his worth and price should be reasonable.
Henry Anderson, N.Y. Jets: Anderson managed to play in 16 games for the first time in 2019 and graded out well with eight sacks, eight quarterback hits and 29 hurries. It all happened after recovering from a torn ACL, so a team could game Anderson’s injury problems are behind him.
Danny Shelton, New England: Shelton played in 16 games with the Patriots with one start and had just 21 tackles, but served his purpose as a nose tackle at 6-4, 345 (nicknamed Feastmode) and will land somewhere as a rotational interior defender. A former first-round draft pick of Cleveland out of Washington.
Others: Timmy Jernigan (Philadelphia), Corey Liuget (L.A. Chargers), Domata Peko (Denver), Haloti Ngata (Philadelphia), Malcom Brown (New England), Mario Edwards Jr. (N.Y. Giants).

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