ALAMEDA -– Raiders defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. was expected to make an immediate impact in his rookie year. He was set to rotate in heavily at defensive end and tackle based upon the package.
Then Aldon Smith showed up. The prolific pass rusher and run defender signed just before the regular-season started and immediately swallowed up snaps. Edwards, this year’s second-round pick, never played more than 27 defensive snaps the first four games, and played 15 or less twice in that span.
Then injury struck. Veteran defensive end Justin Tuck tore a pectoral muscle in Week 5 and was lost for the season. That was a huge blow, but Edwards has migrated the impact with solid play in Tuck’s stead.
“I know I have big shoes to fill, but I love a challenge,” Edwards said. “I’ve taken that challenge on, and I feel like I’m getting better every week.”
That’s clear when watching tape. Edwards is a mauler on the line, using power to crashes edges against the run and bully his way into the pocket.
The coaches love his style, effort and his attitude when coached. Any reservations about Edwards after he was drafted -– he underwhelmed at Florida State, where he spent most of a college career overweight -– have been erased by work ethic and performance in the early going.
“If you’re a Raider fan, you have to be a Mario Edwards fan,” Norton said. “After picking up in the draft where we did, and what he’s been able to do has been great. The improvement that he’s had each and every week, how hard he’s playing, how violent he’s playing, how fun it is to watch him work. I’m really, really impressed with his development.”
Edwards has 11 tackles, a sacks, six other quarterback pressures and a batted pass thus far. He’s been more valuable than even those numbers suggest. It’s the way he plays that helps establish toughness on the interior front.
New York Jets running back Chris Ivory learned that first hand. Edwards crashed from the corner, beat his man on the inside and blindsided him with 275 pounds of brute force.
The Raiders are trying to established a reputation for playing physical, and Edwards is becoming a poster child for that effort. He’s a young player with a nasty streak.
“He was blessed with some of that,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think the part that we teach is the effort that he gives on every play. We’re pushing demand for that, make him accountable for that. He’s been very willing and he’s getting better. His practice habits have improved. His performances in games have improved with it.”
Edwards has a friend and mentor in Tuck, who has stuck around to advise young members of this front seven. That includes helping the player replacing him. Tuck councils while watching film and game action, giving a veteran’s perspective to a young player thriving up still finding his way.
“A talented young man that has earned more playing time with Justin (Tuck) going down,” Del Rio said. “He’s been thrust into a role that he really had earned from his performance, but the timing of it made it such that he’s going to get the lion’s share of the work there and he’s really flourished. He’s really done a nice job for us.”