NAPA -- Mario Edwards Jr.’s second season went south in a hurry. The Raiders defensive lineman suffered a hip injury in the 2016 preseason opener that kept him out 14 games and prevented progress after a solid rookie year.
He walked into University of Phoenix Stadium so full of hope, so ready to become a impact player on the inside. He left on crutches, with disappointment etched on his face. Edwards Jr. played thrice in 2016, but never made a real impact.
He’s expected to make one in Year 3. Edwards Jr. is back to full health, without restrictions of any kind. He’s been that way a while now, completely recovered from a hip injury that took forever to heal. He passed standard injury milestones required to overcome a major injury. He regained great shape. He tested the joint several times, and was confident it would provide explosiveness and withstand jarring hits.
One last mental hurdle was cleared Saturday night, when he returned to the crime scene. The Raiders opened this preseason against Arizona, at University of Phoenix Stadium, on the anniversary of his injury.
Flashbacks were unavoidable.
“I definitely thought about it,” he said.
It didn’t consume him. Edwards was played 22 productive snaps and emerged no worse for the wear. That, above all else, was the important thing.
“Going back to where it happened and completing the game, that was important,” Edwards said. “I thank God that I walked off the field the same way I came on it. That boosted my confidence and showed it can hold up. I was happy with that, and happy to have come out of everything just fine.”
Edwards has dealt with significant injuries throughout his career. He had a neck issue late in his rookie year, and a hip problem that stole his 2016 campaign. Edwards is thrilled to say those issues are behind him now.
“I’ve pushed that under the rug,” he said. ”I’m completely done with it. Now I’m focused on moving forward and playing faster.”
There’s no doubt the Raiders are better with Edwards on the line. General manager Reggie McKenzie said so this offseason. Edwards is a versatile, powerful, athletic player capable of playing most every technique from inside out. He played everywhere as a rookie, from stand-up edge rusher to nose tackle.
He’ll be a roving chess piece again this year, Edwards should play end in the base defense, often with Bruce Irvin on his flank. He’ll slide inside to provide a pass rush in a sub packages. Good push from Edwards, Denico Autry, Jihad Ward and Eddie Vanderdoes is vital, especially after struggling to create pressure in years past. Head coach Jack Del Rio said last season’s effort wasn’t good enough. His players heard that, and are hell-bent on showing better.
“We take what people said about last year’s interior push as a challenge,” Edwards said. “We know we’ll be better, and we’re out to prove that the Raiders interior defensive is pretty good.”