Jon Gruden had seen Antonio Brown practice well before coaching him. The Raiders head coach had access to a few Pittsburgh workouts in his previous gig as a Monday Night Football color analyst, and the All-Pro receiver made quite an impression.
It was so positive Gruden declared Brown maybe the hardest practice worker he had ever seen, and that was back in Dec. 2018, before the Raiders and Steelers clashed last season.
An appreciation for the daily grind foreshadowed a solid working relationship, which has manifested throughout this Raiders offseason program.
“I think the relationship has been great,” Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “I think they’re both like-minded, they both love football. That’s a big part of it. I think that's a big part of the respect they have for one another.”
It was clear early, when Gruden and Brown bonded over film cut-ups mere hours after the receiver was formally acquired from Pittsburgh.
Gruden’s affinity for Brown has grown in the offseason program’s daily grind, where Brown has proven to be a hard worker and energetic practice player and influence.
“I just love guys like that. He’s like … he just wants it,” Gruden said in an interview with NBC Sports NFL senior writer Peter King. “Reminds me of, you throw a dog the ball, he just goes and gets it. He keeps going, and going, and going, and going. He just won’t stop. Antonio’s energy is contagious.”
Landing in Gruden’s good graces doesn’t earn special treatment. That’s even true for elite talents. Gruden pushed Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown hard during his previous run as Raiders head coach.
He is pushing Brown more all the time, even with games that count so far off.
“Absolutely. He challenged me from the meeting room to the field,” Brown said. “Lining me up at all kind of positions, hurrying up the offense’s tempo to see if I’m able to mentally pick up what I’m doing, where I’m lining up really fast. So, it’s never a dull day with coach. Always challenging, always high energy and always detailed and fundamental in regards to our assignment.”
Brown played coy when asked how he fits into Gruden’s offensive system. A “we’ll see” is all we’ve got, and opponents won’t get much more this summer, considering Brown is expected to play little, if at all, in the preseason.
Gruden does plan to move Brown all over the formation, off both sides and in the slot, trying to establish favorable matchups for someone surely emphasized in defensive coverage plans.
The Raiders hope adding Tyrell Williams and Ryan Grant and even fifth-rounder Hunter Renfrow –- tight end Darren Waller will be a factor in the receiving game as well –- will divert some focus from Brown. Even if the receiver corps proves threatening overall, Brown will always be a focal point.
Brown understands that, and wants to lead with an infectious style of practice and play.
“It’s just great to have a guy that’s so passionate about playing the wide receiver position, but also just passionate about football,” Olson said. “He brings a lot of juice to our side of the football. He always has a smile on his face. He’s enjoying it. That part of it has been real refreshing.”