Raiders

Johnathan Abram has the skill, swagger 2019 Raiders need at safety

Johnathan Abram has the skill, swagger 2019 Raiders need at safety

Johnathan Abram quickly bonded with Jon Gruden at the Senior Bowl despite representing a team the Raiders weren’t coaching. Abram is a physical, aggressive player with talent to spare and swagger Gruden loves. That made the No. 27 overall selection a natural fit. The Raiders brought the Mississippi State safety in to help lead a promising secondary. That’s the short- and long-term plan, with the rookie moving into the starting lineup faster than anyone not named Josh Jacobs.

Let’s take a gander at Abram’s rookie outlook as part of our series on the entire Raiders draft class.

Johnathan Abram

Draft slot:No. 27 overall (First round)
Position: Safety
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 205 pounds
School: Mississippi State

Skill set

Abram plays like an old-school safety, a thumper unafraid to make a big hit. He’s built like a prototypical NFL safety, with the physical traits to step in and compete right away. He can mix it up near the line of scrimmage, takes proper angles to the ball and has proven adept at the lost art of tackling. Safety duties are interchangeable between free and strong spot, and he can flow from coverage to run play with ease.

Those following this year’s draft class have heard tons about his leadership, and that was evident to new teammates and coaches during the offseason program. He’s already a popular guy unafraid to talk trash in practice, confident he has done the work and has the talent to back it up.

Training camp proving ground

Abram was moved up to the first unit late in OTAs, and looked comfortable there then and during a mandatory minicamp that closed the offseason program. Continued progress is mandatory as intensity ramps up with padded sessions, joint practices versus the L.A. Rams and preseason games. Thriving through that series of tests should land him in the starting lineup right away, likely the third Raiders first-round pick in as many selections to be a feature player.

Best-case scenario

Abram never was a big interception guy in college. He had two in three seasons as a regular, but posted diverse stat lines with high tackle totals, sacks and passes defensed. He also comes with the enforcer tag, something 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph also likes to wear.

The Raiders would love it if he and Joseph can compliment each other well in the back end. The Raiders need a vocal leader confident in system knowledge playing deep, which might frequently be Abram if Lamcarus Joyner continues near-exclusive play at slot cornerback and Erik Harris is a reserve.

He also has the size and speed to cover tight ends and receivers, which could help strengthen a weak spot in recent Raiders defenses. The Raiders need a safety who can do everything well, and Abram has the skills to do that right away.

Worst-case scenario

Abram has both a high ceiling and a high floor. Bust potential is of no real concern within the organization, meaning slower-than-ideal development might be as bad as it gets for someone many considered the 2019 NFL draft’s best safety.

The Raiders need an instant impact from Abram, and waiting a year is not ideal even with Joseph and Harris capable of playing significant safety snaps and Joseph fully capable of playing an excellent free safety. Abram taking a year-plus to develop into a starter would prove an unexpected setback for a defense looking to build a young foundation and tweak secondary rotations from Plan A to Plan B.

[RELATED: Jacobs has high expectations entering rookie season with Raiders]

Realistic expectations

There’s little at this point to suggest Abram won’t be a Day 1 starter. Pairing him with Joseph seems like the hopeful outcome, though partnering with Joyner in the back (in the base defense at least) may be best in the short and long term.

He should provide consistency and explosiveness lacking from the safety spot recently, with the size and speed to cover tight ends that have plagued Raiders defenses.

High hopes are warranted for an entertaining player who works extremely hard and can be a tone-setter right away playing deep or in the box.

Raiders contract extension allows Darren Waller to reflect on how far he's come

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AP

Raiders contract extension allows Darren Waller to reflect on how far he's come

ALAMEDA – Darren Waller had one great Wednesday. The breakout tight end practiced with a Raiders team reliant on him to consistently produce in the run and pass game, and then signed a contract extension that will keep him with the Raiders through 2023 season.

He got a fat raise and financial stability for life, a surefire sign the Raiders believe he can be a top-tier tight end for years to come.

His celebration, however, was subdued.

“I’m not really into spending money on a lot of things,” Waller said Thursday. "I did go to Walgreen’s and buy some Perrier. That’s what I like. That’s my go-to beverage right now.”

Don’t take to mean the moment wasn’t meaningful. It was a powerful one for someone who nearly threw his career away over substances of abuse, which got him suspended by the NFL twice while in Baltimore. The second ban without pay lasted a full year and forced him to work at a grocery store to make ends meet.

Now he’s recognized as one of the NFL’s best tight ends, in the midst of a breakout season. He was set for restricted free agency next year, where the Raiders essentially controlled his rights. The Silver and Black chose to pay him anyway and commit to him long term.

That, considering all Waller has been through, meant more than money.

“I feel like it shows I can contribute to a team and be reliable, someone who can be counted on,” Waller said. “That wasn’t the case before. I just try to be a good teammate and be part of this family. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

The Raiders have helped him integrate into the recovery community after signing him off Baltimore’s practice squad later last season. He signed his first Raiders contract in 2018, in the exact same room he signed a major extension less than a year later. It was a powerful moment that made him reflect on just how far he has come during more than two years clean and sober.

“There was a big wave of that yesterday,” Waller said. “ I usually reflect a ton in my life because I’m so grateful for where I am. I was talking to my family and friends and my trainer, who helped me get back into shape, and it was pretty overwhelming for sure. But it’s in the best possible way.”

Waller’s all about stacking good days, an effort he’s getting good at. It’s paying real dividends here in Oakland, where he has a powerful support system. It’s hard for him to think so far into the future, where his contract lasts four full years into the team’s Las Vegas relocation.

“It’s incredible for me,” Waller said. “It’s hard for me to think about what I’ll be like in 2024. I just try to let the days stack up, but it means a lot to me that they would do that. This whole thing is still surreal to me, because last year I was sitting in that same room coming over from Baltimore, and I just didn’t want to mess this up. Now to have something in place for a longer term in incredible. I’m really looking forward to what’s next.”

Waller looks forward to being recognized among the tight ends he watches every week. He goes over every game Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz play. He likes watching Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen and Cameron Brate. He wants to be recognized in that class of tight ends and known has someone who performed at an elite level for a long time.

“I spend time on the off day watching other guys in the league just looking at their game and what from that I can apply to mine,” Waller said. “I can compare myself to guys who have been doing it a long time. I’m kind of new to this, but I want to be in the conversation, and I think it’s realistic for me. I know there are a lot of people here who will help me accomplish that.”

Raiders' Paul Guenther calls Vontaze Burfict suspension 'witch hunt'

Raiders' Paul Guenther calls Vontaze Burfict suspension 'witch hunt'

ALAMEDA -- The Raiders were seething over Vontaze Burfict’s season-long suspension over his illegal hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle, yet confident the unprecedented punishment for an on-field act would lessen upon appeal.

Jon Gruden and Derek Carr spoke on Burfict’s behalf. The middle linebacker himself pleaded for leniency on a suspension that was more about past acts and a dirty reputation than the hit itself. Such logic fell on deaf ears, and independent arbitrator Derrick Brooks upheld the original suspension.

Gruden bit his tongue when asked about on Wednesday, only saying he was upset over the decision.

Paul Guenther did not take the same tact.

The Raiders defensive coordinator, who has known and worked with Burfict for years in Cincinnati and helped the linebacker establish himself in the NFL, voiced his displeasure in no uncertain terms.

“It was a witch hunt from the beginning, quite honestly. Somebody from the league didn’t want him playing, and they got what they wanted. The Raiders are going to keep a close eye, and make sure everyone is being held to the same standard that Vontaze was. We had no idea that this guy – does it make any sense to sign a guy where, after one infraction, he’s going to get thrown out of the league for the year? No, it doesn’t.

“I think it’s unfair. I think it’s unfair to our team. It’s unfair to Vontaze. But we have resilient guys, and they’re going to fill in for him and they’re going to play for him.”

Guenther said the Raiders did not know another infraction for an illegal hit would end Burfict’s season. They never would’ve made him such a vital part of their defense had that been the case. At the very least, they would’ve added a durable safety net underneath him.

“Nobody knew that the next time he dropped the helmet a little bit and hit a guy that he was going to be done for the year. Absolutely not,” Guenther said. “To sign a guy like that and know that was going to happen makes no sense.”

Guenther took umbrage with the fact that, unlike penalties for violating policies on personal conduct, performance-enhancing drugs or substances of abuse, there’s no clear line of punishment laid out in writing for all to see and follow. That’s another reason why the Raiders feel Burfict’s suspension was excessive and clearly targeted at one specific individual.

“There’s no standard. That’s the issue I have,” Guenther said. “There’s no [protocol] that says, the next time you do this, you’re done for the year and maybe your career. I think it’s unfair. You can warn a guy, but you should put in writing that the next time this happens, you’re done. That’s where I have a problem. It’s unfair to the kid. It’s unfair to all the players around the league to not know what will happen. You give this guy a whole year suspension? I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that’s fair at all.

“Now they’ve opened up a whole can of worms for the next guy that does this. We have to make sure that if we’re going to do this to this one guy for going 38 mph in a 35-mph zone with the cop looking for one guy doing it, that all the players are held to the same standard. To me, that’s where I have the issue.”

[RELATED: Gruden still not happy with Burfict's suspension]

Guenther is close to Burfict and was asked how the veteran linebacker is dealing with this massive setback and prolonged suspension without pay. In short: not well.

“How would you do deal with it if you basically got your career taken away like that, and not really know that was going to happen?” Guenther said. “He may never play football again. That’s a tough thing. He’s 28 years old, and all of a sudden, it’s done. Now that they know with the next infraction you’re done for the year, that’s a tough pill to swallow without knowing that was going to be the consequence. To me, that’s not right.”