Building off Training Camp’s first week’s story-lines, here are the things that TFDS has been monitoring with the second set of training camp practices in the books:
Iron sharpens Iron
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” ~Proverbs 27:17
– The Raiders offense and defense both appear better this year but it’s always a little difficult to get a full picture in training camp, where there isn’t live tackling and the players really get to know each other. One of the biggest benefits of the Raiders improving on both side of the ball is that the offensive and defensive units have really been able to push each other on both sides of the ball.
Of course, Khalil Mack is going to look good in camp as he’s one of the best young defensive players in the league. And now that he is healthy again, last year’s second-round selection Mario Edwards also has had his moments in camp. But the two have been joined by other dynamic defensive lineman this offseason, who have really added to the defensive line: Bruce Irvin, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun – all three of whom have had pushed the offensive line in camp and have made plays in the backfield.
But the defensive line has not dominated the offense – there has been a consistent back and forth between the two squads. While there are days in which the defensive line wins and other days in which the offensive line is able to hold the defense at bay, allowing Carr and the wide receivers to move down the field or springing Latavius Murray for a nice run down the field, albeit with no actual tackling to stop him.
Whether it’s the defensive and offensive lines squaring off, the tight ends and linebackers contesting in blocking and coverage drills or the receivers facing off against the revamped secondary, the current Raiders team has talent at every position that pushes those around them and continuously raises the bar. David Amerson has had a very solid camp and has made multiple last second dives to break up passes. But those attempts wouldn’t even stand out if Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree weren’t also doing well and getting open on other plays where their route running or high-point abilities didn’t show Amerson that if he doesn’t give the play his all, they will make him pay.
– In addition, the Raiders offensive and defensive lines communicate with each other when they beat one another so that they can learn what they do that is effective and what isn’t working well. This type of conversation should be common among teams but it’s really not – many players want to keep their best moves or biggest weaknesses secret because they don’t want to be supplanted by another player or don’t want an opposing unit to show them up where they don’t make the final team due to their openness.
This back and forth is why the increased talent on both sides of the ball is of great benefit to each other. There are only a handful of teams in the league with the same amount of starting talent that the Raiders have on their squad. The offense and defense playing against each other consistently raises the bar for each unit and better prepares them for when they see the field for a game instead of just a practice.
Del Rio is setting the tone
– Pads cannot go on until the 3rd day of training camp per the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement but once that day hits, the coaches have a lot of latitude to have the players use them. The Raiders have made padded practices the norm, moving back to shells for only one practice since they have been allowed to use pads.
The purpose seems fairly clear – Del Rio wants his team to be used to playing physically and used to playing in pads when they take the field. These padded practices have helped set a tone in Napa that the team is physical and ready to play football.
At times, pads can push players to the physical extreme – the players are hotter and the hits are harder when the pads are on – and that has resulted in a few scuffles in training camp already this year. On Saturday, guard Kelechi Osemele and DT/DE Mario Edwards fought a couple of times in practice before Del Rio sent them off the practice field to cool down. While Del Rio surely knows that having the pads on can push the matter due to the heat and level of physical play, he clearly feels it’s important because he had the team don their pads again on Sunday, the fourth day they played in pads during the five-day sequence.
The consistent use of pads in practices underscores what Del Rio wants – a team that is disciplined, dedicated and ready to play quality football. There is a definite difference in how players can play with and without pads. Del Rio and his staff clearly value seeing how the players can play with the pads on and will be using their performance in full gear to make personnel determinations.
– In addition, the coaching staff is consistently reinforcing the importance of discipline with the players. When Osemele and Edwards fought on Saturday for the second, more prolonged time, they weren’t simply told that it wasn’t acceptable. They were sent off the field to ride stationary bikes next to each other for the remainder of practice, watching their starting reps go to backups to emphasize the importance of remaining disciplined even when angry at their opponent. Veteran LT Donald Penn spoke individually to each of them and their position coaches and Del Rio himself were also involved in communicating the message that although the play should be physical, the players cannot lose their emotional cool.
The focus on discipline also makes it’s way over to penalties. It’s very common during practices for pre-snap penalties like false starts or off-sides to result in exhausting up-down drills for the penalized player’s offensive or defensive unit out on the field. It’s just another way that Del Rio and staff is emphasizing being a focused, disciplined, and physical team.
Up for grabs
With increased depth across the team this year, there are only a few positions open for grabs and that has made training camp a little less dynamic this year because the starting positions were mostly set coming into camp. Even so, there is always competition and this year is no exception. Here are the positions that have been the most interesting thus far:
- Backup running back: Latavius Murray is set as the starting back but the depth chart is still in flux behind him. Rookie DeAndre Washington looks likely to be his primary backup and he has flashed good speed and surprising strength given his short starture (only 5’8″).I like UDFA rookie Jalen Richard behind Washington but they are similar height and styles so that may work against Richard. He has looked explosive and also has soft hands out of the backfield. He was very productive in college and I’m looking forward to seeing how he looks against an opposing defense. Richard also has been getting looks as a returner, which can help his stock.If Richard does, indeed, get the nod as the third back that leaves Taiwan Jones as a definite bubble player. He is a great gunner on special teams and is still the most likely kick-returner for the team but he’s had issues with fumbling and the team is definitely taking a long look at other players as both a returner and on special teams to get the best 53 players they possibly can on the squad.
- Fifth wide receiver: The team came into camp with their top four recievers mostly set: Cooper, Crabtree, Roberts and Holmes. I don’t see any reason that that will change at this point despite Andre Holmes continuing to drop some receptions that he should make. That leaves a number of free agent players vying for the final spot. At this point, I think that K.J. Brent has a good shot based on some good catches and great size – like Holmes, Brent is 6’4″.Other receivers who have stood out are Johnny Holton and Joe Hansley. Holton, at 6’0″, has decent size and has made his share of plays. Hansley, too, has made some good plays but at 5’9″ and 168, he’s definitely on the small end of NFL receivers and I think that works against his chances despite his speed and talent.
- Secondary spots: Interestingly, in recent practices Dewey McDonald has been getting some 1st team snaps over veteran Nate Allen. That situation bears watching but it doesn’t bode well for Allen. SaQuan Edwards was waived/injured over the week and Neiko Thorpe has struggled mightily in practices and also took a recent paycut. These events open the door for last year’s seventh-round selection Dexter McDonald as potentially the team’s 5th CB option behind Sean Smith, Amerson, Hayden and Carrie.
The Raiders first pre-season game is Friday versus the Cardinals. We will continue to monitor practices and in games to bring you updated Raiders story-lines as they develop.