By Josh Dubow
ALAMEDA—After months of questions about the health of his heart sent him tumbling down the draft board until being taken by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round, Maurice Hurst was happy to get on the practice field and turn the conversation to football.
Hurst took part in his first practice as a pro Friday when the Raiders opened their rookie minicamp with three promising pass rushers they hope can bolster their defense.
“Just trying to get all of that stuff behind me, try to get people to stop talking about it,” Hurst said. “You know, some sort of issue or all of those kinds of things—just try to move past that and focus on playing football and just having fun out there.”
Hurst was one of the most productive defensive players in the country last season at Michigan. He had 51/2 sacks as an interior rusher and led all nose tackles and defensive tackles with 49 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Hurst was sent home from the combine after a heart issue was detected. Hurst said it was something he has dealt with for a long time and hadn't impacted him on the field. He said he has been cleared by doctors at Harvard and Michigan but that didn't prevent every team passing on a player projected as a first-rounder until the Raiders got him at 140th overall.
“I'm not going to answer any more health questions on Hurst,” coach Jon Gruden said. “I realize there are a lot of ghost stories out there about unnamed sources that have their opinion on why we shouldn't have drafted him. This man played at Michigan. I know the head coach there. They've looked after him carefully. We're happy to have him in any round, and I'm excited for him and I'm really excited for him because he's an Oakland Raider and he's a great kid. I hope you just judge him on the field. He's been cleared medically and I'll just leave it at that.”
The additions of Hurst, second-round defensive tackle P.J. Hall and third-round defensive end Arden Key give the Raiders help on a defensive front that has ranked near the bottom of the NFL in sacks in recent years despite the presence of edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
The Raiders have the second fewest sacks in the NFL the past two seasons with just 56—one more than the last-place New York Jets. Nearly two-thirds of those sacks have come from Mack (21 1/2) and Irvin (15), as the edge players have gotten almost no help from the inside rushers.
“It was a major priority,” Gruden said. “It's a commodity that's hard to find. I've heard a lot of critics have talked about the risk involved. There is risk involved with every pick.”
While Hurst faced questions about his health, Hall and Key had other concerns.
Hall had 42 sacks and 86 1/2 tackles for loss in his college career, but that came at the FCS level for Sam Houston State instead of against top-flight competition.
Gruden called Hall and Hurst the top two interior rushers in the draft, a position of major need after Oakland had just 1 1/2 sacks last year from players playing inside full-time.
Key proved himself at the highest level of college football for LSU in the SEC. He had 11 sacks in 2016 and 20 overall in three seasons in college, but he has had off-field problems and checked himself into rehab last spring.
If Oakland can get production out of those three players, that should go a long way in improving a defense that has been a weakness for the team in recent years.
“We all work together,” Key said. “We have edge rushers that can get to the quarterback and the quarterback steps up. Inside guys get the sack. We have inside guys that get to the quarterback and make the quarterback roll out, the edge rushers get the sack. So we all work together.”
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