ALAMEDA – Mario Edwards Jr. maintained a practice routine during Raiders OTAs, joining teammates for individual drills and stretching before heading back to the facility when activity intensified.
On Tuesday, the young defensive lineman didn’t make that lonely trip inside. He stayed on the field, and finished his first practice since December.
It was an important moment, one that meant as much as being formally cleared to resume football activity. There is being allowed to play, and then going out and doing it.
“It felt great to be back out there working with the team,” Edwards Jr. said. “I’m just looking forward to the next day.”
Edwards Jr. is expected to fully participate in Raiders mandatory minicamp, which runs through Thursday at the team’s Alameda complex.
The 2015 second-round pick always expected to return healthy despite ominous terms connected with a neck injury suffered in last season’s Week 15 loss to Green Bay.
At the time, head coach Jack Del Rio called it a “significant” injury. General manager Reggie McKenzie said this winter it might be “congenital.” There was a level of uncertainty surrounding Edwards Jr.’s future, and whether his injury would delay or possibly prohibit his return to football.
Edwards Jr. downplayed the issue on Tuesday, merely calling his injury a neck sprain. He said he remained confident he’d return without issue if he followed a specific treatment plan.
“I just put my nose down, kept doing what they told me to do and kept praying,” Edwards Jr. said. “I kept my faith and I’m out here today, out here playing.”
The Florida State product projected confidence during a meeting with the press, and said he can now work without restriction.
He played with controlled fury as a rookie, making an immediate impact with 42 tackles, two sacks, 30 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles in 605 defensive snaps.
He was playing particularly well late last year, before a collision with Packers running back Eddie Lacy ended his season.
“Anytime you’re having a good season and it’s cut short, it’s always devastating,” Edwards Jr. said. “I know what work I’m going to have to do to pick up where I left off, and I’m ready for that.”
Edwards Jr. was considered lazy at times with the Seminoles, but didn’t show that side as a professional. He began maximizing immense talent under the Raiders watch, and plans to elevate his game as a defensive end and interior rusher on passing downs.
While he gets three practices in before training camp, Edwards Jr. doesn’t plan to take a summer break. He wants to come back in great shape and become a valuable asset to a talented Raiders front seven.
“It’s great to get back into the flow of things right now, but the training that I do from now until training camp will determine how I do this season,” he said. “My thing is starting fast. As long as I’m in shape and running around well, I’ll be okay.”
Del Rio placed a high ceiling on this young talent, finally able to play free.
“The sky’s the limit,” Del Rio said. “He’s a really talented player. He has a lot of passion. He’s super athletic for such a big powerful guy. I know he’s excited to be back.”