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  • Michael Gehlken

Raiders look for healthy Mario Edwards Jr. to bolster D-line

OAKLAND, Calif. — Whatever confidence Mario Edwards Jr. carried into last season, whatever hope he had to come into his own, was stifled before the year began. The Raiders defensive tackle suffered a hip injury in the first quarter of the first exhibition game.

Just like that, he was sidelined.

He missed the rest of the preseason. He missed the first 14 games of the regular season. Now, here Edwards is again, another offseason on which to build.

His confidence appears renewed.

The Raiders drafted Edwards early in the second round of the 2015 draft, hoping he could become a 16-game fixture on their defensive line. He has played 16 games in two years, having missed the final two of his rookie year to a neck sprain. But all that, he and the club hope, is behind him now.

Edwards was a full participant Tuesday during the Raiders’ second practice of organized team activities — the first open to reporters. He will be on the field again Thursday when the team concludes its practice week in a closed session.

“Mario loves to play football,” coach Jack Del Rio said Tuesday.

“For him to be healthy right now and be with his buddies, his teammates, I think is huge for him. We missed him last year. He’s an impactful player. He’s getting himself ready to have a really big year for us.”

Said Edwards: “Just ready to do what coach already said, show that I’m ready to be a dominant player and pick up where I left off before I got hurt.”

The 23-year-old is not regarded for his pass-rush ability; his work against the run is where he thrives. This was evident throughout his college career and as a rookie, which featured flashes of dominance. In a Week 10 game against the Vikings, he logged a team-high 11 tackles with one sack, one forced fumble and four quarterback hurries.

That is the sort of play the Raiders missed in their interior line in 2016.

That is the sort of play Edwards looks to provide more consistently.

He said he made pass rush a priority this offseason, focusing his training on being more explosive off the line of scrimmage. Squats. Sprints. Sand-pit drills. If all goes according to plan, Edwards’ work will make the Raiders’ defense more dynamic, as they’ll be less reliant on the edge-rush combination of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin to pressure the quarterback.

There is something to be said, too, for an interior rush. Quarterbacks, particularly less mobile ones, often identify interior pressure as being more disruptive than an edge rush; the former directly affects their ability to step into a pocket and deliver a throw. It also can force a hurried passer into an edge rusher’s grasp.

Edwards split his training this offseason between the Bay Area and Tallahassee, Florida.

Both are a second home of sorts; Edwards attended Florida State. His father works at the school as the football program’s director of player development.

“He’s excited about this year because he knows the hard work that I put in,” Edwards said of his dad, Mario Edwards Sr., an NFL cornerback who played for the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Dolphins from 2000 to 2005. “I know the hard work that I put in.

You know, you get out what you put in. So I’ve been grinding nonstop, getting myself back to where I need to be.”

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