Jon Gruden

Gruden finally gains access to players as Raiders offseason program begins

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AP

Gruden finally gains access to players as Raiders offseason program begins

Jon Gruden isn’t a fan of access restrictions in the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement. The new Raiders head coach’s first three months were spent without much player interaction thanks to the CBA’s offseason guidelines, a point of frustration Gruden regularly expressed during this downtime.

He couldn’t slip quarterback Derek Carr a playbook. He couldn’t spend hours asking Khalil Mack what plays fit him best, or finding out exactly what makes Amari Cooper tick.

Gruden exchanged pleasantries with those cruising through the Raiders complex but, by law, could talk football.

That period is now over. The Raiders offseason program begins Monday morning, voluntary sessions where most every player and coach will be under the same roof for the first time.

It’s a big moment for Gruden and the franchise. That doesn’t mean he’ll commemorate it with a fire and brimstone address. It will not be a tone setter. His speech, as will everything that happens this offseason, will be focused on efficiency.

“I’m not going to have a long meeting or say a whole lot,” Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings. “…We’re only allowed to have them four hours per day, so I’m not going to talk to them for two hours. I’m going to get them downstairs and really sell our strength and conditioning program.”

That’s smart, considering that’s the focus of the offseason program’s initial phase. The first two weeks are spent primarily with the strength and conditioning staff.

That effort’s led by a new man with a large staff. Tom Shaw is a widely respected trainer who has worked for NFL teams and, most recently, ran a private training facility in Orlando, Fla. Shaw hired four assistant strength coaches, including Gruden’s son Deuce.

“We have a new program downstairs that is totally different than what has been going on there,” Gruden said. “…Tom Shaw is great. He’s proven. I want them to lift and run and be together for three hours, and then I want them to come upstairs and do football for an hour that first week. I want them to get excited about being a Raider and learning our system and building relationships.

“Trust. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t have any relationships with anybody, and that’s a challenge. That’s also a big reason I’m back. I’m looking forward to having our players and our team and our Raiders working together.”

Gruden has a limited amount of time, and he plans to maximize each moment with his players.

“We’re working for four hours. Not a second less, not a second more,” Gruden said. “I’ll have a two minute warning.”

The Raiders have four hours per day, four days a week and never on a weekend.

Gruden will focus on teaching and building bonds with his players during the first phase. He can’t do much more. The second phase allows for restricted on-field work. The third includes OTAs and minicamps.

All told, the Raiders have nine weeks with their players over a 12-week period. That stretch will include 10 OTAs, a voluntary veteran minicamp, a rookie minicamp and a mandatory minicamp in June.

Gruden and staff have tons to accomplish during this offseason program, and don’t want to waste a moment.

“The most important things for us as a staff is to have the best meetings in football,” Gruden said. “To do that, you have to prepare harder for your meetings than you ever did before. If you have one hour, there had better be three hours of content. You can tell stories and have a good time.

“When you’re on the practice field, every second has to be accounted for. Players want that. They want discipline on the field. They want organization, and that all starts with the coaching staff. Fortunately, we’ve hired some really good people.”

Jon Gruden wants to pair Khalil Mack with dominant inside rusher

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USATSI

Jon Gruden wants to pair Khalil Mack with dominant inside rusher

Khalil Mack is a dominant player, an elite edge rusher and an attraction when head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther joined the Raiders this winter.

Guenther has been at the dry-erase board, coming up with ways to get Mack free. As he said shortly after taking the job, isolating Mack in a one-on-one matchup is as good as a blitz.

Mack routinely sees double teams, occasionally more attention than that. He can handle it, as proven time and again the last few seasons. Remember his game-winning strip sack against Carolina in 2016? The Panthers had a guard, tackle and running back devoted to Mack. He got home anyway, took the ball from Cam Newton and won a game.

No. 52 can do what is hard. Gruden wants to make his job a little easier.

“Mack is certainly a centerpiece for our football team,” Gruden said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “We’d like a better inside rush for him to even be better.”

Guenther’s installing a defensive scheme based on what he ran in Cincinnati, that featured a dominant four-man rush. Geno Atkins led that inside push, and ranks among the league’s elite defensive tackles.

That guy’s tough to clone. The Raiders understand that. They sniffed around Ndamukong Suh after Miami released him, but the price was high and Suh ultimately cancelled at trip to Oakland and signed with the L.A. Rams.

The Raiders might have to look at the draft for help with their greatest post-free agency need. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst fits the bill of a strong inside pass rusher, and might be a good trade-down candidate in the first round. The Silver and Black could look for someone in the second round or later.

Gruden also called out one of his own to play better and live up to his athletic ability.

“Mario Edwards, if you’re listening out there…,” Gruden said, trailing off for effect. “If we can get inside rush going… That’s what Warren Sapp did for Simeon Rice (when Gruden was in Tampa Bay). It’s tough for the quarterback to step up. If a quarterback can’t step up, these great pass rushers can have a feast.”

That’s what Gruden wants for Mack and Irvin. Edwards would certainly help that cause. The 2015 second-round pick showed flashes of dominance as a rookie and early last season, but injury or inconsistency has kept the former five-star prep recruit from realizing potential. Gruden needs that from Edwards and others brought in to bring heat from the inside.

“(Mack) is a spectacular player,” Gruden said. “I don’t think he has scratched the surface yet. If we can get a better inside pass rush, a more consistent inside rush, a dominant inside rush, you’ll see the best of this guy. You see some of the disruption he hasn’t gotten credit for, and it’s really exciting for us to see what could happen.”

Jon Gruden pinpoints several spots where Jordy Nelson's 'it' factor will help Raiders

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AP

Jon Gruden pinpoints several spots where Jordy Nelson's 'it' factor will help Raiders

The Raiders have signed or re-signed 22 free agents since mid-March. Jordy Nelson remains that school’s biggest fish.

The former Green Bay Packers receiver inked a two-year, $15 million deal with $13 million guaranteed. He’s the most recognizable on the massive signings list, and prompted the release of Michael Crabtree, a popular and productive, yet mercurial talent who signed with Baltimore.

It doesn’t matter that Nelson’s nearly 33, coming off a disappointing statistical season by his standards. Expectations surrounding him remain high.

Count head coach Jon Gruden among Nelson’s biggest fans. Armed with intelligence from receivers coach Edgar Bennett – he worked with Nelson in Green Bay – and experience covering him as a broadcaster, Gruden has great confidence Nelson can positively impact the Raiders’ on-field product and locker-room culture.

“He can still run,” Gruden said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “He’s a guy we can put on the backside of (triple receiver formations). He can win at the line of scrimmage against press coverage. He’s good after the catch.

“He brings a lot of ‘it’ factor we need. He’s unselfish. He’ll block. He’s excellent at uncovering in scramble drills. His work ethic and consistency is something that will benefit our football team. He’s one of the free agents who will play a huge role for us.”

Gruden expects Nelson to be an asset to 23-year old standout Amari Cooper. Gruden expects him to be a tone setter throughout the offense, and help establish heightened levels of accountability throughout that unit. Gruden also expects excellence working with Derek Carr despite just 53 catches for 482 yards (9.1 ypc) and six touchdowns last season in Green Bay.

“We’re not playing fantasy football,” Gruden said. “We know his production fell off. So did (the production of) Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. So did the Packers offense when Aaron Rodgers went down.”

Gruden has a point. Nelson had 60 percent of his receiving yards and all of his touchdowns in six games before Rodgers was lost with a broken collarbone.

The Raiders believe Nelson will fit in well and enhance the team while essentially taking Crabtree’s place (and paycheck) on the Raiders roster.

“’Crab’ was a good player, no doubt,” Gruden said. “With a lot of receivers, sometimes a change of scenery is a good thing. I think Crab’s in a good place. I think this is a good place for Nelson.