Oakland Raiders defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. wasn’t given his due coming out of college, and many still don’t realize how good he is, or can be.
After officially being activated for Saturday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie wasn’t shy about what he felt the 22-year-old defensive end’s return means, per the San Francisco Chronicle.
“He’s an important player for us. Make no bones about it, he is a stud. He jumps out on tape and we really missed him.”
In his rookie campaign, Edwards registered 42 combined tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles and two pass deflections in 14 games before injuries derailed his progress. He earned an 81.8 overall grade in that span, per Pro Football Focus.
After Edwards Jr. suffered a hip injury Aug. 12 that has kept him out all year until this point, the Raiders were forced to play rookie Jihad Ward.
While Ward has great raw ability, he’s only posted 17 tackles (zero for loss) and is tied for the worst grade among defensive lineman in 2016, per PFF.
With Ward filling Edwards’ shoes, the Raiders’ run defense ranks 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (116.9), and 29th in yards allowed per carry (4.6).
Meanwhile, when Edwards Jr. was on the field in 2015 — and even before the free agent signings of Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson — Oakland ranked 13th in yards allowed, and 18th in yards per carry on defense.
Edwards Jr. is good at stacking the corner, has good ball awareness and can make plays off of blocks in the run game. Tape also shows a player who is quick off the ball and drove plenty of offensive guards and tackles back into the laps of quarterbacks in 2015 with an excellent bull rush.
While Edwards was knocked at the collegiate level for lacking consistent effort on plays, that was not an issue in 2015 as an NFL rookie. But one thing did follow him from college: injury concerns.
During his final collegiate season, the former Texas prep. suffered a concussion that kept him out of a game against North Carolina as well as an MCL injury. These facts make the Raiders’ restraint in not pushing Edwards Jr.’s return too quickly, all-the-more wise in hindsight.
At 6-foot-3 inches and 295 pounds, the former Florida State Seminole is extremely athletic. Oddly, he hasn’t produced in the pass-rush area as well as one would think after reviewing his tape and 2015 NFL Combine numbers.
Edwards Jr. ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, posted a vertical leap of 32.5 inches, came in fifth at his position with a 10-foot broad jump and blasted out 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
That doesn’t sound like a guy who posts two sacks in a season.
Some of the lack of sack production was how Edwards was used in 2015, and some was not expanding his repertoire of moves. However, after almost a full two years of watching the best pass-rusher in the game dominate at his position in Khalil Mack, it would be silly to think that Edwards Jr. hasn’t learned a few things.
Should Edwards Jr. prove adept at implementing more than just his bull rush, possibly adding a hump or club move to take advantage of his strength, his game very well could immediately elevate to All Pro-level status.
The current plan is to work Edwards Jr. back into game shape by giving him 25 snaps against the Colts Saturday. The end goal is to have him fully ready for the playoffs.
All of Raider Nation will have their eyes locked on No. 97 when he takes the field against Indy at 1:05 p.m. PT at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. And a wise fan shouldn’t expect him to disappoint.