HENDERSON, Nev. — Clelin Ferrell was starting to feel like his old self when a familiar but unwelcome sensation hit.
After an offseason and early part of training camp spent marinating in new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme and beginning to apply what he learned onto the field, Ferrell’s right ankle went the wrong way. It was July 27, the first day of padded practices for the Las Vegas Raiders, and the edge rusher who has been under intense scrutiny since the previous regime used the No. 4 overall pick on him in the 2019 draft was sidelined.
He returned last week for a pair of joint practices with the New England Patriots and the corresponding preseason finale. Then that first sensation returned.
“I’m feeling good,” Ferrell said after playing 14 snaps on defense, four more on special teams, in Las Vegas’ 23-6 exhibition win over the Patriots. “Just got to get that game-shape back [after] missing a decent bit of training camp because of the ankle, but I feel good. Just got to keep learning, keep [rehabbing] and take it into Week 1 because, as you can see, the culture has been changing, for sure. We’re doing well.”
With a culture change courtesy of a new coaching staff, expectations have not lessened for Ferrell. Rather, he is embracing the challenge as he gets more comfortable in the new defense while fighting for his Raiders future.
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Because as much as he’s been painted as a forgotten man in the Raiders’ pass rush — draft classmate Maxx Crosby is a Pro Bowler who just got a four-year, $99 million extension, offseason acquisition Chandler Jones could be on his way to Canton, second-year defensive end Malcolm Koonce has flashed and Tashawn Bower led the NFL with four preseason sacks — Ferrell is biding his time.
“Tashawn was killing it,” Ferrell said of the preseason. “Malcolm, doing well. I do miss those reps because I wish I really could have gotten to show what I put together in the offseason. But at the same time, gotta take it one day at a time. God’s got a plan, and I’m sticking to it.”
As many longtime Raiders observers have pointed out, it’s not his fault the Raiders drafted him fourth overall. Because as then-general manager Mike Mayock said at the time, Ferrell was the Raiders’ second-rated defensive end in the draft, presumably behind San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowler Nick Bosa, and edge rusher was a huge need.
And if anyone on the current roster is in need of a do-over, it’s Ferrell.
“I love everything about [the new defense] because it really stretches you out as a football player,” Ferrell said. “It makes you navigate, and really find every inch of what you can potentially do. And for me, it’s been a blessing, for sure, for [Graham] to ask me to do certain things.
“I think it can make me flourish into something that can really, really prosper.”
Ferrell, working opposite Crosby as rookie bookend pass-rushers in 2019, had 4.5 sacks in 15 games that year, even as a midseason illness sapped him of strength and weight. In 2020, a particularly nasty bout with COVID-19 limited him to 11 games and he had just 2.0 sacks.
Last season, essentially replaced by Yannick Ngakoue, Ferrell played in all 16 games but did not start once and finished with 1.5 sacks.
What’s that about relishing a clean slate, again?
“He’s a physical guy, and we obviously want to put a tough, physical defense out there on the field, and Clelin has demonstrated the ability to do that in more than one spot,” said Raiders coach Josh McDaniels. “He set the edge a handful of times [against the Patriots], which is a good thing to see. He was involved in the pass rush some, dropped into coverage, actually, a couple of times.
“There’s a lot of things we ask those guys to do on the edge [and] Cle has definitely got to try to make up for a little bit of lost time here, but that’s okay. That’s what these practices going forward will be about for him.”
Ferrell, like Crosby, is on his fourth defensive coordinator with the Raiders — Paul Guenther, Rod Marinelli, Gus Bradley and Graham — and says Graham has “opened my mind in regards to football.”
Unlike Crosby, Ferrell is in a contract year, as his fifth-year option was not picked up by McDaniels and new G.M. Dave Ziegler (the Raiders’ two other first-rounders in 2019, running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram, didn’t have their fifth-year options picked up, either).
“It’s not even about the contract,” Ferrell said. “The biggest thing, regardless of whether you’re playing well or playing bad, everything feels better when you’re winning.”
The Raiders are coming off a star-crossed 10-7 season in which they set an NFL record with six walk-off wins and went to the postseason for just the second time since 2002. How big of a role, then, might Ferrell play if Las Vegas is to return to the playoffs?
“He’s been involved in each meeting, he’s paid attention, he understands what his roles are that we’re asking him to play, and like I said, it was good to get him back out there,” McDaniels said. “In the limited number of opportunities he had [against New England] you could see some of the things that we’re looking forward to with Clelin.”
Then how much more work could Ferrell get in before the Raiders open the season at the Los Angeles Chargers on Sept. 11?
“Here’s the thing — we’ve got two weeks before the first game,” Ferrell said. “And it’s really moreso like a pad-level technique and just not being out there. More just getting in game shape. I had a good baseline going into camp. It’s mostly about just knocking off the rust.”