Postcard from training camp... Day four - Oakland Raiders
I made a bright and early start to day four of my training camp tour as I wanted to beat the traffic to the other side of San Francisco as I ventured from my airport hotel to the Napa Valley - training camp home of the Oakland Raiders.
Mind you, my 6am departure from my hotel would have been nothing more than a lazy lie-in for the earliest of all NFL early risers in Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.
A cloudy and chilly morning soon gave way to a glorious, picture-perfect training camp scene and there was not a blemish on the bright blue skies as the Silver and Black put the pads on and did some serious hitting for the first time this summer.
And improvement is the bar being set for this team. They're not talking Super Bowl any time soon as Gruden told me: "We're building our team. But we've got work to do."
Gruden has set about that work with new general manager Mike Mayock and the Raiders are not only moving to get bigger and faster, they are making a definitive move to get younger. When I visited Napa about this time last year, Gruden and I spoke about the large number of players on the roster with more than 10 seasons of NFL experience. I cannot remember the exact number then, but it was a lot.
On Monday, I perused the roster and found two guys out of 90 - Brown and offensive lineman Richie Incognito- going into year 10 or above.
Mayock told me: "The cool thing is that because Jon has a 10-year deal, there's some security that is rare in the NFL these days. So we've got draft picks, we've got a little bit of money and we've got security. So let's build this thing the right way from the ground up."
The sleeping giant that is the Raiders is not quite ready to start stomping the rest of the NFL into submission, but it is waking from its slumber and should result in an improvement on the four wins recorded last term, even with a tough schedule in a tough division.
Derek Carr looked incredibly sharp on Monday morning, throwing touchdown passes to running back Jalen Richard and tight ends Paul Butler and Darren Waller in team and seven-on-seven drills. Carr, who is being encouraged to use his legs more by Gruden this season, also ran in a pair of scores while showing sneaky athleticism; danced with teammates, laughed and joked and generally had a good time. If the Raiders really were trying to move on from Carr this offseason, they are doing a decent job of hiding the fact. Gruden and Mayock both insisted that they love their quarterback (I know, I know... what else are they going to say?) And Carr himself laughed when we discussed the fact that he was not even supposed to be with the Raiders this summer and he suggested that we in the media "pump our brakes" on that angle. Carr was in tremendous spirits and he read and ripped apart his own defense time and again on a day when the defenders should have been on top. I maintain that if he is better protected - and veterans Trent Brown and Incognito will help in that regard - Carr can still be an upper-end NFL quarterback.
The Raiders are looking for players who can run and make plays, but they are also looking for high-character leaders. That explains the drafting of defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who came across as a very switched-on and motivated young man when I interviewed him in Napa. Mayock and Gruden are looking for tough players who are versatile enough to adapt in the heat of the battle. But they also want a locker room filled with players driving each other on. Carr also reiterated that fact and said everyone can have a voice in the Oakland locker room in 2019, from Pro Bowlers to undrafted free agents. Gruden told me: "I don't want our guys to just pay attention to me and their coaches - I want them to pay attention to each other. We need to create some relationships and you can't create a relationship when you're on the Twitter stuff or reading your Facebook comments."
I interviewed a pair of young defensive linemen who could power the Raiders for the next decade in rookie Ferrell and sophomore Maurice Hurst. Both are extremely driven and unwilling to settle for careers in the NFL that end up being labelled as good or average. Ferrell said: "I don't know if I'm going to be a Hall of Fame player because I cannot see into the future, but I know what I am working towards and nobody can stop that."Hurst was one of the Raiders' best players in 2018 and his game should blossom with Ferrell alongside him. Both young man are not the finished articles, but they hold a great deal of promise.
One to Watch
As I watched Marcell Ateman make play after play in practice on Monday, I thought to myself '88 has a shot at tight end with Jared Cook no longer on the team.' Then I checked the roster and saw it was Ateman, who recorded 15 catches as a rookie in 2018. The big-bodied wideout looks like a tight end but he certainly moves like a receiver and he could become a factor in 2019 with so much attention being paid to Brown and Tyrell Williams.
Quote of the Day
"That's why I cancelled my cable TV and I don't pay attention to that stuff. I'm really impressed with Carr. I don't know how anybody could write that or think that but I can't worry about that. Derek Carr is our quarterback and I';ve said that from the very beginning. We're doing our best to support him with a better supporting cast - Raiders head coach Jon Gruden addressing the widely-held media perception that he and quarterback Derek Carr don't get along.
Inside the Game
Long-time NFL Network draft expert Mayock is now serving as general manager of the Raiders in a move he described to me as being "a trial by fire." And his television role certainly helped the Silver and Black around draft time. Mayock explained that he had essentially been working as general manager for all 32 teams so he got a good idea of what value is placed upon each pick. So making trades - which should have been alien to Mayock - came naturally and he moved around the board with confidence as the Raiders stocked up with three first-round selections.
The Last Word
I understand that these training camp postcards may take on an overly-positive theme. But this is the season of widespread optimism, after all. But for those looking for a negative, here you go. Raiders backup quarterback Nathan Peterman is still an interception waiting to happen. While Carr was razor-sharp throughout a briskly-moving two hour and 10-minute practice, Peterman looked shaky. And there was one seven on seven period where he would have thrown three picks in five minutes if not for some questionable hands - or well-placed sympathy - from his defensive backs. I have to believe, based on what I saw on Monday, that Mike Glennon is the number two in Oakland. Anyway, that's it from northern California. I'm hopping on a flight south to LA for a day with the Rams. Speak to you tomorrow.