The Oakland Raiders defense had one of their most productive practices on Thursday, the same day outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. returned after missing most of the first week of training camp.
The two players were back in their customary positions with Oakland’s starting defense for the midmorning workout, Edwards on the right side of the Raiders line with Irvin lined up on Edwards’ outside shoulder.
Both had been on the active/non-football injury list for undisclosed reasons and had been working out individually before joining the rest of the team on the field when the Raiders returned from their first day off of camp.
“It felt good being back out there,” Edwards said. “Staying healthy is pretty big for me but I’m back so I’m ready to play.”
Irvin and Edwards’ on the field seemed to spark the rest of the defense. Cornerback David Amerson and backup Dexter McDonald both intercepted passes from Derek Carr during the full team scrimmage portion of practice. Earlier, defensive tackle Justin Ellis stopped running back DeAndre Washington with a hard hit at the line of scrimmage.
Baby steps, to be sure, but an encouraging sign for a defense that was among the NFL’s worst in 2016.
The Raiders were 26th in yardage allowed and were dead last with 25 sacks, leading coach Jack Del Rio and general manager Reggie McKenzie to orchestrate a slight overhaul in the offseason.
Defensive tackle Dan Williams was released while fellow lineman Stacy McGee signed with Washington. Linebacker Malcolm Smith was not brought back, either.
McKenzie added help through the draft and with a handful of free agent signings but the core of Oakland’s defense remains the same. Del Rio is fine with that.
“We’ve got an offense that’s probably ahead in terms of cohesiveness and healthy players but I think our defense is going to be pretty good this year,” Del Rio said. “I think you’re seeing some of those signs.”
Keeping Edwards healthy is a must if Oakland wants to improve its pass rush.
Edwards has missed 16 games in his first two NFL seasons. He spent most of last season on injured reserve with a hip injury and also missed time with a neck injury during his rookie campaign.
The 35th overall pick in 2015, Edwards was hopeful of a clean and healthy start to training camp after an injury-free offseason. That ended on the first day of workouts when he was placed on the NFI list.
“Not too frustrating,” Edwards said. “I knew I wasn’t going before I got here. I was just going with the process and doing what I needed to do to get back 100 percent. I don’t get too high with the highs, too low with the lows. I stay pretty even Steven. It’s an obstacle but I get over it and I’m ready to go.”
Edwards only has two career sacks, both coming against Denver during his rookie season, but the Raiders hope he can be a key part of their pass rush. Edwards will line up mostly at defensive end but will slide inside on some passing downs in hopes of improving the interior pass rush.
“I’m a defensive lineman,” Edwards said. “I don’t pinpoint myself as one particular position. I feel like you put me wherever you want me to play and I can make it happen.”
Notes: Amerson made a nice return on his interception before tight end Jared Cook stripped him of the ball and recovered it. Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper hooked up for a long touchdown during the team scrimmage.