Antonio Brown explains how early camaraderie will help Raiders win


Antonio Brown explains how early camaraderie will help Raiders win

ALAMEDA -- Antonio Brown has done extensive work building a rapport with quarterback Derek Carr and a receiver corps he wants to lead.

That’s an effort he started shortly after being traded to the Raiders in March, with all the extra time spent with his quarterback. He went to Carr’s son’s birthday party in Fresno. He has been over to Carr’s house, and they’ve found East Bay parks or university fields to work on timing and chemistry.

“I think it did help connecting with him early on,” Brown said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “As the offseason continues, I’ll continue to get better. I think he learned firsthand working out, and that I’m always trying to get faster. I’m excited and grateful to be here continuing to put my will on display and help the team out.”

Brown can’t help the team scoring touchdowns in May. He can demand better from his position group and leading by example by practicing his tail off.

“Camaraderie is key,” Brown said. “You need that to win and get to know the guys and have their back. I’m out here to do that, and show what I’m about.”

Some may take that quote an apply it as a shot at Pittsburgh, and the divisiveness often emanating from previous Steelers locker rooms. That wasn’t a cannonball across the bow, or a podium misstep.

Brown doesn’t make those. He’s as polished as it gets in front of the press, sticking to his message and filling downtime with a megawatt smile.

Tuesday was all about chemistry and understanding those he’s working with and for. That, he says, is why he has put so much effort into making an excellent early impression on his new team.

“You want that respect for a guy, to know what he stands for and where he comes from so you can be on the same page and do what you desire to do,” Brown said. “We have a desire to win.”

Brown previously talked about setting a new standard for work ethic within his position group, about instituting fines for mistakes and creating accountability within a new locker room culture.

That has already been instituted in meeting rooms as he tries to lead a position group also featuring Tyrell Williams, Ryan Grant and Hunter Renfrow.

“We’re bringing the juice, challenging each other every day,” Brown said. “We’re holding each other accountable, for knowing what to do and how to do it.”

There’s someone holding Brown accountable as well. Gruden is pushing his superstar receiver hard, just as he did previously working with Jerry Rice and Tim Brown in their 30s.

Brown admits surprise at Gruden’s unwavering intensity and welcomes someone above matching his intensity.

[RELATED: Mayock, Raiders stand behind Incognito deal]

“He challenged me from the meeting room to the field, lining me up in all kinds of positions,” Brown said. “He’s hurrying up the offense to see if I can handle it.

“…He’s excited every day. I thought he would slow it down during the offseason, but he’s always high energy. I love the passion. There’s never a dull moment with him.”

Raiders' Trayvon Mullen established himself as long-term cornerback answer

Raiders' Trayvon Mullen established himself as long-term cornerback answer

In the past, the Raiders have invested heavily in the cornerback position with little to show for it. Previous general manager Reggie McKenzie tried in vain to end a series of stopgap solutions at the position, paying Sean Smith eight figures per season in free agency. Waiver claim David Amerson turned one big season into a contract extension, with Smith and Amerson set to earn just under $75 million combined over the life of their deals.

The Raiders, it turned out, still were not set at the position. Neither played out their entire contract. Amerson was around for half of that deal, Smith lasted the same span after getting in trouble with the law.

They looked to the NFL draft after that, making Gareon Conley a 2017 first-round pick. He was traded last season after a largely underwhelming performance. Daryl Worley was allowed to walk out the front door this offseason after being steady but just okay in coverage.

They are not, however, starting from scratch.

Trayvon Mullen established himself after the Conley trade pushed him into the starting lineup, showing an ability to execute the physical coverage style the Raiders prefer. He has the size, speed and aggressiveness to compete in the NFL, exuding confidence in his ability to sustain success.

That’s why he’s a virtual lock to start a one outside cornerback spot this season.

“He is the brightest light of the whole thing for me,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said right after the 2019 season ended. “You know we traded [Gareon] Conley, which was hard to do early in the season. It kind of opened the door for Trayvon. …He’s a tough guy. He’s I think improved his level of play, his overall consistency. He’s got a huge upside and to get our second-rounder playing well is something I’m mostly very excited about.”

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

There are plenty of advanced metrics that prove Mullen came on strong after his playing time increased. The Clemson product allowed just 55 percent of his targets to be completed, with 40 catches allowed for 445 yards and three touchdowns. Opposing passers had just an 85.7 rating against him.

The most impressive part of his season, however, came in response to adversity.

Mullen’s welcome-to-the-NFL moment came in the 2019 season opener against the Denver Broncos, when he was forced into action after Conley got hurt. He struggled some dealing with veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, giving up three catches and a touchdown on four targets. Allowing six was brand new for Mullen, who didn’t give up a touchdown in his entire Clemson career.

He didn’t hang his head after a lackluster debut. He watched that film objectively, identifying areas for improvement and positives from the experience.

"I know the type of player I am, how good I am,” Mullen said after the Broncos game. “For me, it's just playing with technique, being physical and playing fast and I'll be alright."

He certainly was. While he didn’t play much until the Conley trade, he consistently was solid in coverage with room for improvement. He was penalized a bit too much down the stretch, but that’s a correctable problem that will work itself out with experience.

[RELATED: Hunter Renfrow's continued growth is key to Raiders' offensive resurgence]

Gruden respects toughness and availability and came away impressed by Mullen's ability to rebound from a scary situation. He was carted off the field in a Week 16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers with a head injury, but went right back to practice after being formally cleared.

He finished the season strong, doing enough to prove he belongs in the league and the starting lineup. That’s a welcome point of stability in a secondary with tons of turnover.

The Raiders still are searching for a starter on the opposite side. That’s why they drafted Damon Arnette No. 19 overall and signed veteran Prince Amukamara. That’s why they keep stacking cornerbacks, with Isaiah Johnson and Amik Robertson joining as fourth-round picks in the last two years.

The team remains committed to fixing this premium position in the long term. With Trayvon Mullen set to anchor one spot, they have made great strides in achieving that goal.

Hunter Renfrow's continued growth is key to Raiders' offensive resurgence

Hunter Renfrow's continued growth is key to Raiders' offensive resurgence

Hunter Renfrow arrived in Oakland last summer as a national championship hero. An unassuming receiver who built a historic career at Clemson by always finding a way to get open and always coming through when his number was called in the clutch.

The Raiders drafted Renfrow in the fifth round in 2019, hoping they found a crucial piece of their offense for years to come. A top-notch slot receiver is critical in the modern NFL, helping move the chains on third down and finding holes in the defense in the red zone. Renfrow got off to a slow start, catching just 14 balls for 114 yards through the Raiders' first six games.

Precision is crucial in Jon Gruden's offense. The Raiders coach wants the routes run exactly how he envisions them. Renfrow is more of a freelancer. A slot receiver who thrives off feel and instinct, not on perfect mastery of a route tree. His ability to get open at Clemson came from Dabo Swinney's ability to let Renfrow be Renfrow. He's been known to adlib his routes, breaking them off and altering them in the slightest to gain an advantage over the defense.

After some early-season struggles that saw him fail to find ways to get open consistently as he showed he could do at Clemson, the Raiders took the reins off Renfrow and he became one of the best slot receivers in the NFL during the second half of the season. From Week 7 on, Renfrow caught 35 passes for 491 yards and four touchdowns.

During that stretch, he flashed his signature clutch gene that made him a household name at Clemson, when he caught the game-winning touchdown late in the Raiders' Week 8 win over the Detroit Lions. On third-and-goal, quarterback Derek Carr rolled left to buy time and saw Renfrow break free and cut back toward the pylon. Carr fired a strike which Renfrow snagged, getting both feet down inbounds to send the Oakland Coliseum into a frenzy.

That play highlighted Renfrow's ability to elevate the Raiders' offense, and showed why his continued upward trajectory will be key for an offensive resurgence in 2020.

The Raiders' offense got more explosive in the offseason, thanks to the additions of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, Lynn Bowden Jr. and Nelson Agholor. Those weapons should make the sledding easier for star tight end Darren Waller and a healthy Tyrell Williams.

But it's Renfrow who needs to expand upon his late-season success for this offense to reach its ceiling.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Trust is imperative in any quarterback-receiver relationship. That's even more true with Carr who has been known to look away from guys once they've burned him a time or two. But if you've earned Carr's trust, he has no problem trusting you to make tight grab after tight grab in traffic.

The trust between Carr and Renfrow was cemented during the back half of last season, when Renfrow and Waller were the healthy receivers in the pattern who Carr could rely on.

"I had it with him from the moment I met him," Carr said of his trust in Renfrow in November. "His love for football, you can see it in his eyes. His love for the team. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he does not care who catches that last ball. I promise you that. He doesn't care if he gets one catch at all. He just wants to win.

"When guys are that selfless, you ask them to do selfless things in the run game, ask them to do selfless things in the pass game, clearing some things out, it really feels good when a guy who's very selfless makes a game-winning touchdown catch." 

Defenses started to key in on Renfrow in December, knowing Carr would be looking his way on crucial downs. With more weapons available to the Raiders in 2020, Renfrow should have more room to operate as defenses look to stop Ruggs, Waller and Williams from generating big plays.

With the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, robbing Carr of time to jell with Ruggs, Edwards and Bowden in a sanctioned environment, it will be up to those the quarterback already trusts to carry a heavier load earlier in the 2020 campaign.

Waller is a blossoming star who should have Pro Bowl aspirations. There's no doubt he's going to get his numbers. Williams is a seasoned veteran who will be motivated after an injury-riddled first season in Silver and Black.

Renfrow holds the key to a true offensive leap. If you take Renfrow's second-half numbers (36 catches, 491 yards and four touchdowns), and extrapolate those averages (5.1 catches, 80 yards and 0.5 touchdowns) over a 16-game season, you get 80 catches for 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns. Only three players in the NFL had at least 80 catches, 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns last season: Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin.

Elite company.

This isn't to say that should be the expectation for Renfrow, but it shows his ceiling and the value he can provide to an offense that was mundane and punchless for most of 2019 through no fault of its own.

[RELATED: Raiders' playoff path tougher with Cam in New England]

The speed of Ruggs and the playmaking ability of Bowden and Edwards will be huge boons. So too will the health of Williams.

But Renfrow has the ability to join Kupp, Julian Edelman and Jarvis Landry as one of the premier slot receivers in the NFL. Having an 80-catch, 1,100-yard slot receiver gives the Raiders' offense the perfect weapon for the modern NFL. A savvy receiver capable of extending drives and rescuing his quarterback when a play breaks down.

Stats don't matter to Renfrow. He only cares about two things.

“The two things I’ve always judged myself by have nothing to do with catches or stats,” Renfrow said on The Raiders Talk Podcast in September. “Am I being a great teammate, and does it matter that I’m on the team? Am I making an impact and am I helping us win games?

"If I can say yes to those things, then I can live with the results.”

The results were sterling during a stellar rookie season.

Big things should be expected of Renfrow in Year 2. If he delivers, there's no telling how dynamic the Raiders' offense can be.