How ‘Mad Maxx’ Crosby went from one college offer by EMU to Raiders wild card

By Matt Schneidman
San Jose Mercury News
Maxx Crosby and Oakland Raiders teammates stretch during rookie mini-camp practice.

The first time Maxx Crosby met with his coaches at Eastern Michigan, he stunned them.

Not with his quick twitch off the line. Not with his knack for leaving quarterbacks on the ground. Not with a ferocity that earned him the nickname “Mad Maxx.”

Chris Creighton was stunned because it was June, and just five months prior, the EMU head coach watched Crosby play high school basketball weighing around 250 pounds. Now, Crosby sat in front of Creighton on Eastern Michigan’s campus, 40 pounds lighter, forced to explain himself.

“We were definitely concerned,” Creighton said. “It was way past just shedding weight. It was like, ‘What have you been doing?’ … He was just rail thin.”

Crosby felt hampered by “baby fat” left over from a growth spurt the year prior. He wanted to lose it, then replace it with muscle in college, but he went overboard trying to slim down.

“I kind of got carried away a little bit,” Crosby said. "I got a little too thin, just from running and doing all that stuff.”

Creighton planned to redshirt Crosby even before he lost all that weight, but the freshman still required a physical transformation if he wanted to make a name for himself as a 6-foot-5 pass rusher filled with potential.

Thus began Crosby’s evolution, one that’s taken him from a 210-pounder who only Eastern Michigan offered out of a high school football hotbed to the wild card of this Raiders draft class. He’s an intriguing 255-pound edge rusher taken in the fourth round who coach Jon Gruden will count on to help transform the NFL’s worst pass rush, just like he transformed his body to get to this point.

“He’s ‘Mad Maxx,’” Gruden said with a smirk. “He comes off the ball repeatedly with great effort. I like that relentless style he plays with. He’s gotten bigger and stronger every year that he’s played, and some of his second-effort production is what stands out the most, but he really tested well at the combine. He’s got real big upside.”

Crosby stands at the podium at Raiders headquarters on Day 1 of his new job, smile across his face and black flat-brimmed hat turned backward on his head. He’s asked about meeting Deuce Gruden, Jon’s son and Raiders strength assistant who will help Crosby add even more muscle. He’s asked about the pressure of helping lift an anemic pass rush from the depths of the NFL. He’s asked about Raiders owner Mark Davis telling general manager Mike Mayock he sees legendary Raiders linebacker Ted Hendricks in Crosby.

Going unnoticed 

So how, especially coming from Colleyville Heritage High School in the highly recruited Dallas-Fort Worth area, did a player now basking in the NFL limelight and drawing Ted Hendricks comparisons receive just one college offer?

Maybe it’s because at a lanky 6-5, Crosby played out of position at linebacker until switching to defensive end for his senior season. There, he showcased his craftiness in shedding blocks, his speed in disrupting backfields and that lankiness in wrapping up quarterbacks.

Lions defensive tackle Damon Harrison on Maxx Crosby: “Man, he’s gonna be special.”

But those highlights came too late for other schools to offer. Eastern Michigan remained his only option, and as a freshman redshirt he won Scout Team Player of the Year. That’s “a pretty big deal,” Creighton said. EMU coaches started to realize how lucky they were having no competition for Crosby’s college choice. Now if only he could add that weight again.

He tallied only 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in his first year in 2016, then skyrocketed to 11 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2017 en route to earning team MVP and first-team All-Mid-American Conference honors. Ben Needham took over as Eastern Michigan’s defensive line coach before the 2018 season, and upon first watching Crosby’s film he saw a player he thought could make the NFL.

When he learned Crosby’s only offer came from EMU, Needham was stunned, just like his colleagues when the pass rusher now blossoming into an NFL hopeful around 240 pounds first arrived on campus.

“Especially coming out of Texas,” Needham said. “Sometimes, you hear those stories about Iowa, always has a guy who played six-man football and nobody came to his school and so that was his only offer. That you can kind of understand. This guy’s from the DFW area, and that’s about the most recruited place in the world.”

Hoping to expand his arsenal before his redshirt junior season, Crosby consulted defensive line specialist Brandon Jordan, who’s based in the Dallas area. While training with Jordan, Crosby worked with NFL veteran Damon Harrison, now a Detroit Lions defensive tackle and one of the best run stoppers in the league. Jordan saw in Crosby an effective pass rusher but a run defender needing improvement.

Harrison’s early reaction to Crosby? “Man, he’s gonna be special.”

Rounding out his repertoire with Jordan and Harrison led to a productive 2018 season in which Crosby improved defending the run, his sack numbers dipping slightly with opponents more aware of his pass-rushing prowess but his tackles for loss still rising.

To motivate his defensive line, Needham awarded points for plays that didn’t necessarily appear in the box score, like finishing a play unblocked or executing a tackle with proper form. Sometimes, blowing up a play earned a point, too. As Crosby put it, “just the baddest dude on the field” got rewarded.

Each week the player with the most points received a figurine of Ebros the Assassin, a grim reaper wielding a scythe.

“He won it certainly more than anybody else in our room,” Needham said of Crosby, who registered 19 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Crosby earned first-team All-MAC again. He wanted to probe his NFL prospects, and scouts advised he return to school since he wasn’t projected to be a first- or second-round pick and was still too light. Crosby listened to their advice but entered the draft anyway.

He added 15 pounds to reach 255, then among edge rushers at the combine finished 10th with a 4.66-second 40, second in the three-cone drill at 6.89 seconds, second in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.13 seconds and tied for sixth in the vertical jump at 36 inches.

'Dominant pass rusher'

Though Crosby still weighed less than the Raiders preferred, how he used that physique impressed them enough. They used their first of three fourth-round picks on him at No. 106 overall. Their first four selections came from Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State and Clemson again. Then … Eastern Michigan.

“He’ll make his body do what they want and need for him to do,” Creighton said. “I’m not concerned about that at all.”

Maxx Crosby distinguished himself with an impressive showing at the NFL Combine.

Now at the beginning of his professional career, Crosby faces similar demands from his superiors as he did starting his college career.

“He has length, he has twitch, he has a great motor. What he doesn’t have yet is power,” Mayock said. “He doesn’t have strength yet, and he needs to develop that. When I got on the phone with him, I told him that his future was going to be dependent on a Gruden, but not the one he thought. It’s going to be Deuce. I wanted him to get philosophically connected at the hip with Deuce because he has to get stronger. But I love his tape because he plays his ass off on every play.”

All Crosby has to do aside from pack on muscle is help improve the league’s worst pass rush, one that tallied only 13 sacks last year, the fewest in a season since the 2008 Chiefs had 10. Those who have worked closest with him, however, think he can do it.

“His motor, the way he moves, his get-off, his speed and the way he listens and picks up everything, he has the total package with him,” Jordan said. “… He’s a dominant pass rusher. I can see him going there on third down and dominating on third down.”

Crosby may not start, as that responsibility is likely to be shouldered by second-year defensive end Arden Key and 2019 first-rounder Clelin Ferrell. The lights will shine brightest on those two first, then maybe on veteran defensive end Benson Mayowa, who signed with the Raiders as a free agent after tallying four sacks with the Cardinals in 2018.

Crosby is no stranger to waiting his turn, though, as he did waiting to be recruited, then waiting to play in college, then waiting to hear his name called on Day 3 of the draft. But when Crosby does get on the field, whenever and however that chance comes, the Raiders hope he’s a player 31 teams wish they hadn’t passed on.