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Derek Carr building solid chemistry with Raiders' brand new WR crew

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Derek Carr building solid chemistry with Raiders' brand new WR crew

ALAMEDA -- Derek Carr’s offseason program doesn’t start when the NFL gives a green light. The Raiders starting quarterback works hard on his own and has previously held a private passing camp in Bakersfield to building chemistry with his receivers during periods where the league prohibits team activity.

This offseason, however, has been something different altogether. Carr’s winter throwing schedule was packed getting in sync with his new receivers.

“These guys, they’re texting me saying, ‘Hey, I’m in town, let’s go.’ I’ll get off my couch, I’ll bring my kids and we’ll go throw,” Carr said Tuesday. “It’s nice to see how hard they want to work and how great they want to be.

“Every quarterback wants to do that, but to have wideouts reaching out saying let’s go do this, it’s pretty cool. Hitting them up saying, ‘Hey man, I’m going to be in town, do you want to throw this day and this day?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there!’ And literally, they’re taking flights the next day to get there. It means something to them.”

Carr was speaking in generalities about all receivers, but let’s be honest. Most of the texts are coming from Antonio Brown.

Brown has been, shall we say, forward about his desire to work out with Carr. They found an East Bay park to throw at before ink was dry on the trade that sent him from Pittsburgh to Oakland for third- and fifth-round picks. Brown and Carr went out together several times at San Ramon and Dublin parks, and even against Cal’s defensive backs at Memorial Stadium, before they were allowed to join forces at the Raiders Alameda complex.

It’s easy, however, to assume that only one receiver was going the extra mile because Brown’s camp blanketed social media with hype videos from these sessions.

It was Tyrell Williams, however, making an impromptu trip or two to work out with Carr and Brown during a dead period.

Brown and Williams will be featured players in the passing game, but were only part of a complete positional overhaul that left Marcell Ateman as the only returning receiver to make an impact last year.

Brown, Williams, Ryan Grant, J.J. Nelson and fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow are all new, and are expected to contribute in the pattern.

“We all understood that we had to get on the same page – all the guys – we all got together and we all threw,” Carr said. “We understood that we had some making up to do, but I think we’ve hit a good stride and we have a little ways to go.”

Time and repetition. That’s the key to building a solid rapport. Sync comes with timing and trust on both ends. Receivers have to be reliable route runners with secure hands. Carr must deliver passes on time and within a certain radius. Both must make adjustments without saying a word to make Jon Gruden’s offense work.

Practice makes perfect, though Carr did some homework on the new guys, watching tape of them with other teams to better understand how they work.

“That’s huge, and seeing how someone breaks on a route – because half the time you only get a split second when you see them break, you don’t get to see the whole picture – I’m throwing behind massive bodies and I just have to know that that’s where the ball is supposed to be,” Carr said. “Same thing with ‘AB’, and Tyrell and J.J. and Ryan and Renfrow. Although, I didn’t watch any Clemson tape, forgive me for not watching college, it’s a little slower nowadays to me. (laughter)

“Watching these guys run these routes and watching how they break, you definitely take a look at it, especially with ‘AB’. The success that he and Ben [Roethlisberger] had, you’d be silly not to see what they did. I’d be a fool to say, ‘Ah, no, let’s do it our way.’ No, let me see what you all did good, because we can do the same things here, you’re just wearing a different color.”

The passing game has entered a significant growth stage. Players can go against defenders for the first time during the offseason program’s third phase, comprised of 10 OTA sessions – the first one came Tuesday – and a three-day mandatory minicamp.

Development should come quickly under these conditions.

"Starting here in OTAs, you learn how we like to run the routes against certain coverages, how I like to release, how long it takes me to get off the press, stuff like that,” Williams said. “He sees it in practice and then we’re able to watch the tape together, which is big (when building chemistry).”

That was clear Tuesday when Carr and Williams connected on a long bomb in OTAs. Williams created just enough separation and Carr let it fly, trusting Williams would win possession in traffic. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. That’s a trust point right there, when repeated in practice, that will make Carr take a shot without hesitation.

While Brown wasn’t at Tuesday’s OTA – they’re all voluntary – he has spent significant time with Carr. That was evident in a Wednesday session closed to the media, which was documented some by Brown’s team.

On-field connections sometimes come from off-field moments, just getting to know a guy. Carr and Jordy Nelson played lots of offseason golf. Amari Cooper played basketball games with Carr. Brown is heavily involved with Carr personally and professionally this offseason to help establish a connection.

“With these guys, they’re coming to the house, coming to kids’ birthday parties, they’re hanging out just randomly not even doing anything,” Carr said. “It’s different for every person, but just making sure we’re spending time together and helping build our team.”

[RELATED: Carr annoyed by speculation Raiders would draft another quarterback]

Carr has made a strong impression on his new receivers, with his ability to make every throw and how hard he works away from the practice field.

“He wants to be perfect at everything,” Williams said. “Timing, earlier, that’s a big thing and just getting together like that is really important to him. He’s always staying after and always communicating so that’s big. There should be no reason we all aren’t on the same page because we try to over-communicate everything. I think that’s important for him, and I like that too.”

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.