NAPA – Mario Edwards Jr. was a full participant in Sunday’s practice, the first Raiders training camp session in full pads. The second-year defensive lineman finished the workout without incident or aggravation. The next morning brought good tidings, when he woke up with absolutely nothing wrong.
That feeling, or lack thereof, brought an end to a strange, suspenseful chapter that spiked Edwards Jr.’s career with a level of uncertainty. The 2015 second-round pick sprained his neck in a Week 15 loss to Green Bay, and head coach Jack Del Rio called it significant.
That was an accurate description. The Raiders weren’t sure what to make of the injury, which uncovered an unknown pre-existing condition in his neck. The team took a wait-and-see approach to Edwards Jr., allowing time and treatment to repair this wound.
The team remained cautious. Outsiders were confused. Edwards Jr., remained quietly confident all would be well.
"When you injure your neck, it’s always a serious injury,” Edwards Jr. said after Wednesday’s practice at the Napa Valley Marriott. “Once I understood my injury, it helped. Just knowing it was something I was born with, and I’ve been doing it for 22 years and I can keep on going. I got it strengthened, and started some neck exercises to make sure everything is good.”
Edwards Jr. didn’t say much during this period save the occasional Instrgram post of his workouts, including one that said "from minor setback to major comeback.”
While others took a wait-and-see approach to his neck scans, Edwards Jr. believed he was on the road to full recovery.
“I always felt good,” Edwards Jr. said. “I was out of my brace within a week and a half, two weeks. Then I started running and lifting and doing things like that, and it wasn’t bothering me. At that point, I knew that I was going to be okay. I kept praying about it, and things turned out well.”
Steady progress was positive, but Edwards Jr. got some good news on May 6. He received medical clearance to play football. He was limited in most OTAs but participated fully in Raiders minicamp to close the offseason program.
Even after being told his promising young career would continue, Edwards Jr. knew another test remained. That came Sunday, when contact increased and his neck would be tested.
“The biggest moment was getting back in pads with the whole team,” Edwards Jr. said. “That’s what you’re going to do in a game. It’s back to what you know. It’s cool to run around in shirts and shorts but, on Sundays, everybody’s hitting and wearing pads. To be back out with the team is definitely good.”
It was big test, and he passed.
“Once you realize what it is and you know that you’re okay, things turn,” Edwards Jr. said. “Of course it’s always floating somewhere in your mind, but deep down you have to trust it. Just like when guys tear an ACL or break an arm, once they get back to full health and believe in it, you’re good and you’ve just got to go play.”
Edwards Jr. is excited to go play every day, especially how he’s being used. The Florida State alum uses versatility to play all over the defensive line – he played three technique, four technique, defensive end and stand-up edge rusher as a rookie – but will often be a close end with either Khalil Mack or Bruce Irvin on the outside. Edwards Jr. feels comfortable there, and excited to be part of such a talented group.
He can be a dynamic part of the front, as he was last season after Justin Tuck got hurt and Aldon Smith got suspended. He earned positive marks most outings as a run stopper and a pass rusher. The Raiders will look to Edwards Jr. to contribute again this season as part of a talented line.
“We have so many guys who can make big plays,” Edwards Jr. said. “We make you pick your poison. You can’t devote extra attention to us all, and we’re confident we can create steady pressure on the other team.”