NAPA, Calif. — Khalil Mack, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, took all three days of practice off this past week. So no, it does not look like the Oakland Raiders‘ All-Pro edge-rusher will be suiting up for his team’s preseason opener Saturday night at the Arizona Cardinals.
Instead, expect a healthy dose of James Cowser, who received Mack’s first-team reps in practice, and a load of advice from Mack himself.
“He knows the game so well,” Cowser said this week, recalling the different lessons Mack imparted.
Those range from advising not showing his arm at the point of attack too early to sitting a little lower in his rush to shooting the gap — unless he picks something up from the offensive lineman’s footwork that would suggest the play is going to go wide.
“And then it worked for me on the field,” Cowser said.
“That’s some savvy vet stuff right there. Khalil’s the man. Bruce [Irvin] does it, too. All the vets on the team are very good about helping the young guys. It’s a cutthroat game, but it’s also: This is the team and they’re trying to build up the defense.”
Cowser, who did not make the initial 53-man roster last season as an undrafted rookie out of Southern Utah but stuck later and played in six games, has already drawn praise from his coaches this time around.
Jack Del Rio said Cowser was making the most of the time with Mack out.
“James is really, really one of the smarter football players out here,” Del Rio said. “He’s very instinctive … natural feel for pass rush. I like him. He’s a guy that works hard every day, you can count on and very dependable.”
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. gushed about Cowser.
“He’s amazing,” Norton said of Cowser. “He’s that guy that’s always in your face. He’s always in the right place. He’s always available. He’s extremely bright. He knows how to react under all situations. I can’t find his weakness yet.
“He has the size, the smarts available. You can never overlook him … he loves ball. He’s constantly asking questions. You can never give him enough football, you can never give him enough diagrams and defenses. He wants to learn. He’s really hungry.”
Going up against guys in different jerseys in the Arizona desert should satiate that appetite, right?
Well, Cowser already got a sense of upgraded competition by going against the Raiders’ first-team offense this week, so it should help elevate his game.
“It has to,” Cowser said. “It has to help. I mean, it’s like when you come from high school to college or college to the NFL — that increased level is a little shocking, but then you adjust and you get better. That’s how people can move through the levels, you know what I mean? So it’s just all about playing faster, being confident, knowing your stuff a little bit better.
“I have a lot to work on. As you move forward, your weaknesses are exposed more. And so you just have to be able to be humble enough to take the coaching and then work to improve it.”