The Oakland Raiders are finishing up their first full week of training camp, and the excitement surrounding the team seems to be building in a big way.
The Oakland Raiders are fresh off of a 4-12 campaign, just completed an offensive and defensive overhaul, and are one season away from a move to Las Vegas. One would think given these circumstances, spirits would be down among the players and fans, but that isn’t the case.
This past weekend ,I took a trip up to Napa, California and visited the Raiders Training camp to see how the team was doing, and they looked like a team that had a new life.
Last year this time, all of Raider Nation was on Khalil Mack watch. Jon Gruden was beginning his second stint as the Raiders head coach, and the Raiders were in training camp without their best defensive player.
Khalil Mack was a holdout from camp in a contract dispute going into the final year of his rookie contract, as he intended to be the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. Ultimately, Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears before the regular season began, and had a monstrous year where he helped lead the Bears to a playoff berth.
The Mack trade was a wound that seemingly opened up week after week, as Mack recorded strip sack after strip sack, forced fumble after forced fumble, and interception after… well he luckily only had one of those. While Oakland struggled, Mack feasted, and nearly beat the Raiders entire defense in total sacks.
Once the Bears lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 16-15 in the playoffs after a double doink on the field goal, Raiders fans were able to start closing the wounds.
Fast forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, newly anointed general manager, Mike Mayock, selected two defensive ends in the first four rounds. Clelin Ferrell was taken 4th overall, and Madd Maxx Crosby was selected 106th overall in the 4th round.
Ferrell, who was a vocal and physical leader on and off the field for the 2018-2019 National Champion Clemson Tigers, has become a player who has early on taken on a leadership role within the defense, and has earned the respect of the veterans on the roster. Crosby is a high motor player, who has pushed his teammates to get better, he is still a very raw player but as coach Gruden said in his press conference “Leads the league in effort”.
Defensively, the Raiders have added veterans with a lot of gas left in the tank that will serve as mentors and will also make an impact, rather than over the hill players that are coming in for a check only to retire mid-season. Vontaze Burfict looks to take on the role of starting middle linebacker, but second-year player, Jason Cabinda has been making a strong case for playing time.
In the secondary, Lamarcus Joyner has not only been one of the more consistent defensive backs on the team, but has taken on rookie slot wide receiverHunter Renfrow as his personal mentee. Another vocal leader who is a rookie but doesn’t carry himself as such is Johnathan Abram. Abram has thrust himself into the starting safety role and earned the coveted No. 24 because of his leadership and playing style.
Abram is going to be fun to watch on Sundays.
Offensively we see the biggest improvement in the offensive line and wide receiver corp. Derek Carr is who most fans already knew he was, a player, just a few seasons removed from a strong MVP campaign, leading his team to the playoffs, Carr is showing the confidence as the signal caller and team captain that intends to return the Raiders to being a successful team. Carr is flanked by the best wide receiver in the NFL as voted by his peers, Antonio Brown and a strong, solid, deep threat that will make you forget all about the loss of Raider Nation favorite Michael Crabtree.
Tyrell Williams is a player who took less money to come to the Raiders after Antonio Brown was acquired via trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and will be an excellent addition to the potent offense. Another strong addition to the Raiders offense is rookie running back Josh Jacobs, who was selected 24th overall and is heavily favored to earn the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
The offensive line has grown in size physically, grown stronger, and look to be moving back to a gap blocking scheme which made them the most successful in 2016. The line is anchored by Trent Brown and Kolton Miller, and both players have been incredibly impressive during camp and if they can stay healthy, I am excited about the success that the Raiders should have in 2019.
The most impressive parts of camp aren’t from the actual practices though, they came from the periods after the whistle were blown. As fans lined up to collect autographs, and interact with the players not only were more players lining up to connect with the fans, but when you look over Derek Carr, Antonio Brown and their kids were all spending time together.
The family atmosphere, the genuine friendship that the two offensive leaders have built, the connection that Derek and Antonio’s sons, Decker and Ali have built speaks volumes to the leadership, respect and admiration that these two players hold for each other. Iron truly sharpens iron with AB and DC and I know that I can speak for all of Raider Nation when I say that I cannot wait for the Raiders to unleash the Chicken Plan.