Las Vegas Raiders' defensive tackles key in allowing edge rushers Maxx Crosby, Chandler Jones to thrive

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Johnathan Hankins and Bilal Nichols both came off the PUP list last week, and no, that rumble you heard emanating from near the Las Vegas Raiders' compound was not the latest monsoon rolling through Sin City.

It was a sigh of relief.

The Raiders getting their two projected starting defensive tackles out of the training room from undisclosed injuries and onto the practice field provided more than a feel-good story.

"Certainly, we now have more depth than what we've been practicing with, for sure," first-year Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said. "I think anytime you add players back, in this case two defensive linemen that we have some hopes for, it kind of reallocates the repetitions. It re-slots everyone into maybe a role that maybe fits them perfectly, or better than what we were doing before. I see those guys as guys that can contribute."

Better late than never, right?

Consider: the Raiders, under McDaniels and new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, have reimagined the defensive line, especially its interior. Because while there is no doubt about the roles of star edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones, Hankins was the only pure interior D-lineman brought back by the Raiders' new regime (Kendal Vickers rotates between the interior and edge).

And, as noted above, Hankins started training camp on PUP.

Gone are Quinton Jefferson (4.5 sacks in 2021), Solomon Thomas (3.5), Darius Philon (2.0) and Damion Square (0.5), taking 10.5 of the Raiders' 35 sacks from last season with them. In their place are free agents Nichols, Andrew Billings, Kyle Peko, Tyler Lancaster and Vernon Butler (who was released Aug. 16) and draft picks Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler.

Keep in mind, while the Raiders' depth chart shows a 4-3 alignment -- Hankins and Peko started at defensive tackle in Las Vegas' exhibition at the Miami Dolphins last weekend, while Peko and Billings started the first two preseason games -- Graham's scheme has plenty of 3-4 sensibilities.

"Coach Pat got us going through a couple of different formations," Peko said with a smile. "Up front, the more you can do, the better. So I think for all the interior guys, knowing each end knows the three-tech spot, it's just beneficial for the whole defense in the long run."

It's a simple philosophy, really.

"We know the vision Josh has -- he wants us to win the line of scrimmage, so we've got to be heavy handed," Graham said early in camp. "We've got to come out of our hips. We've got to strike people. Right now, we're not striking people; we're hitting sleds. But you see ... improvement, you see the pad level.

"I always think about young defensive linemen -- when they're in college, they're better than everybody. Here, everybody's good. You better get your pads down, or you're going to get embarrassed. So that's been a big focus."

Farrell, a fourth-round pick from LSU, and Butler, a fifth-rounder from Tennessee, played 27 and 22 snaps, respectively, against the Dolphins, with Farrell finishing with three tackles. A week earlier, each played 15 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings.

"We have the same perspective, we're both rookies," Butler said of himself and Farrell. "We just bounce things off of each other after practice and work off with each other during practice."

As well as lean on the veterans.

"Kendal Vickers has been a friend of mine since my freshman year at Tennessee," Butler added. "He's been great. Also, Bilal Nichols. He's been in this league for five or six years now. But really, I mean, whether it's Tyler, whether it's A.B., whether it's Hank, everybody in the room has been pouring [information] into myself and Neil and the rest of the team. And we try to [absorb it] by just giving our all, day by day."

The rookies spoke to the media the same day a mini-melee broke out between Crosby and third-round pick Dylan Parham, an interior offensive lineman.

"Everybody is just out there competing, trying to make one another better," Farrell said. "That's all we do every day. Try to push each other, go hard and give it the best we've got. Every day.

"I feel like everybody gears for improvement. I've got to get better at fundamentals and techniques. That's just coming in, working every day at practice and just doing what I have to do to get better."

The return of Hankins, though, showed just what an impact he can have for the D-line in particular, and the entire defense in general. Especially since he was playing mostly against Dolphins starters and controlling the line of scrimmage in his 13 snaps.

"A position that I would say, for the most part, has been a little bit thin during the course of camp, has now kind of taken a boost here," McDaniels said of Hankins returning, while anticipating the debut of Nichols. "Now it feels like we have some more depth up front, some more combinations.

"We bumped Kendal Vickers out to the end a little bit this last week because we have a little bit more depth inside. It allows us to make some moves and some decisions that maybe we didn't have the flexibility to make earlier, which affects and impacts the entire defense."

Yes, better late than never.