Connor Cook makes progress for Raiders but must show well in pivotal preseason

Connor Cook makes progress for Raiders but must show well in pivotal preseason

Raiders reserve quarterback Connor Cook lofted a pass high enough to float over a linebacker, with proper arc to fall in front of a charging safety and into Griff Whalen’s waiting arms.

That’s exactly how you’d draw it up, from decision to accurate pass to completion that gained significant yards.

The same can be said of a strike to Martavis Bryant a few reps later in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Lions, when Cook launched a deep shot that capitalized on Bryant’s coverage-busting speed and reached him in stride for an easy touchdown .

Those moments have been relatively rare during since the Raiders traded up to draft Cook in 2016’s fourth round. The Michigan State alum has been the Raiders’ No. 3 quarterback, behind Matt McGloin in 2016 and EJ Manuel last year.

His only game action came in a playoff loss at Houston two seasons back, an unfair predicament for a rookie who barely took practice reps with the Raiders offense during the regular season.

He lost an open competition with Manuel for last year’s job, and watched as the veteran took over when Derek Carr suffered transverse process fractures in his back. Manuel completed a game at Denver, and started against Baltimore the following week.

That wasn’t the professional beginning Cook expected. There was talk of him going early in the 2016 draft, but he took a bit of a tumble and then ended up on a team with a young, established starter.

Not ideal. Neither is coaching-staff and scheme instability. Cook is one his third OC /quarterback coach combo in as many seasons. That can stunt growth, especially with limited practice reps while lower on the depth chart.

“You’re starting from scratch,” Cook said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “There was a new system waiting for me as a rookie. Coach Downing used the same scheme but added some tweaks. Now there’s another new system. Everyone’s made a conscious effort to learn it and master it.

“It is very challenging, but it’s the job and I’m going to do it well.”

Cook has been doing well working under head coach Jon Gruden, coordinator Greg Olson and position coach Brian Callahan. We’ve seen practice moments like those described above more often than before, especially in this training camp.

Gruden in particular has impressed by Cook, someone he liked coming out of Michigan State.

“He’s made great strides,” Gruden said. “Since he stepped foot here in Napa, he hasn’t turned the ball over. He’s made good decisions. He audibled two or three times today to big plays. He’s throwing the ball short, medium and deep accurately and he’s showed really good command, and this will be a really good test for him Friday night. He’ll get a good amount of playing time.”

Cook will play a bunch in the exhibition opener versus Detroit and throughout the preseason. It’s a vital stretch for 25 year old, one where he must show progress. Once the regular season starts, Cook’s reps will dry up. He must capitalize on increased opportunity and show better play.

“It’s huge. Every year it gets more important, as your career goes on,” Cook said. “Anytime you get a chance to play, you have to put out good film. Anything can happen.”

Cook’s first order of business is winning the backup job over Manuel. He doesn’t think about the competition at all, but understands solid practice and play could increase his standing over years past.

He can fare well in practice, but game performance matters most to this coaching staff when deciding Carr’s primary backup.

“It’s an import a three-and-a-half week stretch that EJ and Connor are going to have,” Callahan said. “These games are how you make the evaluation. There are several elements that go into the depth chart, but it’s ultimately about how you play. Do you move the team, get first downs and score points? Those things happen when you prepare well, but we want them to go play and show how much progress they’ve really made.”

Callahan dug deep getting to know Cook’s play, and what he needed to improve. There isn’t much game tape to go on in recent seasons, so he reviewed all of his practice reps and preseason efforts. He even went back to watch Cook’s college tape to better understand a physically gifted player with untapped potential.

Callahan has been with Cook since April, and believes he’s more accurate and is making smarter choices. Nothing matters if the ball isn’t delivered appropriately, and strides have been made there.

“There were some things he had to fix (to improve accuracy) and he has,” Callahan said. “A lot of times accuracy for quarterbacks is about footwork and body placement. Those are things you can improve.”

Cook credits this new staff with helping the mental side of his game. Working with offensive coaches can be tough – Gruden especially can be hard on quarterbacks – but have him seeing things clearer.

“I’m better in my reads, in my decision-making,” Cook said. “I’m seeing the field better and understanding protections and opposing defenses. They do a good job of teaching me why we want to run a certain play. It makes it so much easier when you know why.”

Understanding why and what he’s supposed to do has helped get the ball out faster, an issue in previous year’s practices, which still shows up on occasion. Coaches will continue working on Cook’s development, even with an important decision on the No. 2 job coming quick.

“He has made a lot of progress,” Callahan said. “I’ve been impressed with how him and EJ both approach their job. They’re always geared toward getting better. It’s not always easy around here. Jon challenges those guys. He isn’t easy to be around sometimes, because we’re always testing them and pushing them. Connor has done well. “

Raiders camp report: Rookie DTs Hurst, Hall proving disruptive up front

Raiders camp report: Rookie DTs Hurst, Hall proving disruptive up front

NAPA – P.J. Hall created pressure in the Raiders’ offensive backfield during Tuesday morning’s practice, with Maurice Hurst collapsing in from his left flank.

Jon Gruden was pleased. He singled out both rookie defensive tackles after the play, praising their hustle in making life difficult up front.

Hurst and Hall found a spring in their step, but tried to avoid overt signs of excitement. They simply slapped five and went back to work.

The pair played well in the preseason opener against Detroit. Hall had a sack, a batted pass. Hurst had two quarterback hits.

“First play P.J. came in, he got a sack. He batted a ball down, so he was disruptive,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “I thought Maurice had some really good rushes. He didn’t get a sack, but he got home. Yeah, I was pleased with it. I think it’s an area that we’ve gone out to try to improve and we have a long way to go. But, there were some good signs.”

Both guys made an impact, which fits well with how they practice.

Gruden knows Hurst and Hall could be regular fixtures in the defensive line rotation and wants them ready to go for the regular season, so he’ll continue to push and prod and ask for better.

Hall and Hurst enjoy the high expectations, and relish the opportunity to go through the rookie experience with another talented lineman.

“It's awesome,” Hurst said after the Lions game. “There's not a better way to have it, having another guy out there in the same position as you. Getting to go through growing pains together."

Calhoun pushing for a spot?

Shilique Calhoun showed well in the Lions game and continues to create pressure up front, giving the Raiders another option when looking for depth rushing off the edge. He was an afterthought last year, released before the regular season and then added to the practice squad after being selected in 2016’s third round. He has had a resurgence of sorts under Gruden’s staff, but has to improve throughout the preseason to earn a roster spot.

“We’re just looking for more consistency and more out of him,” Gruden said. “He’s a guy that has had an interesting career here. He’s been on the practice squad, he’s been brought back, he’s paid the price in the offseason, but he’s on our radar now.”

Injury update

Cornerback Daryl Worley didn’t practice the day after a random collision with fellow cover man Rashaan Melvin. His injury status is uncertain.

Receiver Martavis Bryant remains out with headaches. Receiver Seth Roberts was also out, and has been since before the preseason game. Safety Marcus Gilchrist (foot) and offensive linemen Jordan Simmons and Breno Giacomini remained out of practice.

Jon Feliciano left practice early for an unknown cause.

Safety Obi Melifonwu has been out a week now, and The Athletic reports he will see a specialist to further evaluate his health and a possible to link to hip surgery he had last season.

Donald Penn was activated off the physically unable to perform list, but practiced a lot for his first session back. He had good moments and bad at right tackle, a new position for him.

Donald Penn in right frame of mind to tackle position switch: 'I just want to win'

Donald Penn in right frame of mind to tackle position switch: 'I just want to win'

NAPA – Donald Penn had played 24 snaps at right tackle in 12 NFL seasons. That came in a pinch, when injuries to Menelik Watson and Vadal Alexander in the 2016 regular-season opener at New Orleans left the Raiders without someone to man the post.

Kelechi Osemele was able to make a move to left tackle, but not across the line. Penn made a sacrifice and moved right. That’s no easy switch, especially on the fly.

It proved successful. The Raiders won with a late offensive flurry made possible by solid line play. The switch, however, was temporary.

Penn went back to his natural spot, and completed a career year that earned a Pro Bowl honor. He got another one last season, but the Raiders still looked toward the future in the NFL draft.

Makes sense. Penn is 35, and doesn’t plan to play much longer.

He’s also rebounding from Lisfranc foot surgery last December. Rehab kept him on the physically unable to perform list until Tuesday morning, when he was able to practice and…play right tackle.

Penn said the prospect was broached during talks to restructure his contract – a new deal was done Monday evening -- but the Raiders formally asked him to play on the right before Tuesday’s practice.

“I told them I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team win,” Penn said. “If you guys feel like this is going to be in the best interest of the team, I’ll do it. Today it felt very awkward and rusty, but I need time to develop. I don’t know if that’s going to be a permanent thing or not yet, but it is something we’re testing out. I told them I’m all for it.”

The transition will have some hiccups. Footwork that’s so natural from the left is now backwards. He has to de-program certain instincts including, it seems, where to stand in the huddle.

“I was standing by (left guard Kelechi Osemele) in the huddle and he was like, ‘Hey bro.’ and I was like, ‘Oh (shoot), let me go over here,’” Penn said. “It’s little things like that. One time I got in my left-handed stance on accident, and I actually had to switch real fast.

“I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s tough. One thing that I’ve been, I’ve been a good athlete. I’m a good athlete, so I think me being athletic can make that transition a little easier and smooth. I don’t know if it’s going to be permanent or not, but we have a good thing going here. I just want to help us win. I’m not playing too much longer. I just want to win. If this is going to help us win, I’m all in for it. I just want to win.”

Offensive line play will be integral to winning efforts. The Raiders have issues at offensive tackle, especially on the right. Breno Giacomini has missed most of camp with a knee injury. A bum ankle has kept third-round rookie Brandon Parker out of the mix until recently. David Sharpe is in the mix, but must be more consistent to be counted on.

Miller played on the right at UCLA but the results weren’t always great and coaches seem set on him playing left tackle. That left Penn to consider a switch that could help strengthen the line.

It won’t be easy, but Penn’s going to give it a shot. He’s learning a new position while mastering Jon Grduen’s often complex scheme – Penn only participated in walk-throughs and individual drills during the offseason program – and finding true football shape.

Penn’s at his playing weight and in solid cardiovascular condition. He’s working hard to master the scheme and the variables within in it.

Penn’s open to counsel Miller, as he has during downtimes in practice and the preseason opener.

"When I was coming up, I had some good vets that did the same to me,” Penn said. “I’m not stupid, I’m not dumb. I’m 35 years old. I don’t want to play football too much longer myself. I understand what’s going on here. I’m just trying to help as much as possible because when I do leave here, I’m going to leave friends here. Me and Kolton, we’re developing a good friendship. I want to have him ready so when he goes out there he can succeed. It’s not like I’m over here jealous or mad. I’m trying to help the kid out so the kid can be as good as possible because it’s going to help us out as a team.”

Penn has been healthy most of career. The 2017 finale was the only regular-season game he has missed in a dozen years. Being a step removed from the practice grind tested his patience, especially when a return got closer and closer. While Tuesday’s story focused on a possible position switch, Penn was just happy to be practicing again.

“I had a lot of down days where I had to pick myself up and go,” Penn said. “This was my first injury and it was a major one. … It was tough, and I just kept fighting. I had a great support system. Good coaching staff. One thing I do like about them, they were upfront with me. They told me a lot of stuff. They weren’t trying to hide stuff. They’ve been like that ever since they got here, so I can really respect that, especially being an older veteran guy. So I knew what the plan was. I knew what direction they were going in with me and other things.

“The rehab process was hard. I started 170 straight games until this. It was the first time missing all of this time. It was very hard. I’m happy this is behind me.”