Raiders minicamp observations: Del Rio's pop quiz adds pressure to practice

Raiders minicamp observations: Del Rio's pop quiz adds pressure to practice

ALAMEDA – The Raiders are nearing the end of their offseason program, with but a few practices left before they break until training camp. New guys and returners have worked to build chemistry and play faster within the schemes.

Head coach Jack Del Rio gave his charges a pop quiz to conclude Tuesday’s practice, the first of a three-day mandatory minicamp. He gave offensive players less than two minutes. A touchdown was required. May the best unit win.

The first-team offense face some resistance, but a long bomb to Amari Cooper brought the ball downfield and allowed Derek Carr to find Jared Cook with a quick strike in the end zone.

The second unit used similar methods of transport, with Johnny Holton hauling in a deep shot that helped eventually put backup Connor Cook in position to throw a short touchdown pass to Jaydon Mickens. The third unit reached the red zone but couldn’t cross the goal line before time expired.

Del Rio likes creating competition in practices. He also wanted to see how his players and coaches reacted at this stage of the offseason when pressure was turned on.

“We’ll choreograph many of these situations we want to put our team in,” Del Rio said. “Today was an example of that…To be able to simulate as best we can the mental work for the players and coaches as well with communication coming in from the sideline, that’s all vitally important. It’s a step in the process of developing a team and preparing your team to thrive in those situations.”

The Raiders were pretty good under pressure on both sides of the football last seasons. Carr had seven fourth-quarter comebacks, several of which the defense saved with clutch play down the stretch.

Here are some other notes from Tuesday’s minicamp practice:

-- The Raiders need more of an internal pass rush this season. The Raiders are hoping seventh-round rookie Treyvon Hester might help with that. The defensive tackle from Toledo received from first-team reps on Tuesday as coaches see how he fared against better competition. There’s much more left to evaluate as pads come on in training camp and exhibitions increase competition, but Del Rio sees potential in Hester.

“He’s done a good job,” Del Rio said. “For all the big guys, it’s more about what we do when we get the pads on. It looks like he has a natural ability to rush inside, interior push. Look forward to seeing that with pads.”

-- Amari Cooper made a pair of excellent deep catches on Tuesday, with one against Sean Smith and the other versus David Amerson. Johnny Holton caught a pair of long passes with the second unit.

-- Tyrell Adams and Cory James continue taking first-team reps at inside linebacker spots. Marquel Lee and Jelani Jenkins manned the second team.

-- CB TJ Carrie was the first-team slot cornerback, with Gareon Conley continuing that work on the second team.

-- Fourth-round rookie David Sharpe continues to see significant snaps at right tackle, especially with Austin Howard and Marshall Newhouse sidelined with injury.

-- Offensive guard/center Jon Feliciano continues to miss time after suffering an apparent knee injury in an OTA session last week. Defensive linemen Darius Latham, Jihad Ward and Fadol Brown missed Tuesday’s session.

Breaking down Jon Gruden's first, and massive, Raiders free-agent class

Breaking down Jon Gruden's first, and massive, Raiders free-agent class

Jon Gruden’s offseason activity should’ve been the first sign he didn’t love the Raiders roster. He let lots of incumbents walk, and signed veteran free agents in bulk this offseason, and traded for a few more during and after the NFL Draft.

Most of the additions aren’t under contract long, either on prove-it deals or came in to patch a deficient position group in the short term. These deals make it possible to turn the roster over again, though free-agent volume could decrease as Gruden stacks up draft classes.

We’re not giving grades six games into a season, but the bye week provides time to update the status of all these free agent signings. Let’s take a look at how this veteran class as done so far.

Featured assets

S Marcus Gilchrist: The veteran has been just okay playing deep and closer to the line. He’s a functional, if unspectacular addition to the secondary.

CB Leon Hall: He has been a mainstay in the slot, quelling initial questions about whether he would make the 53-man roster. He was excellent early, but has gave up some big plays in Weeks 4 and 5. Could Nick Nelson eat into his playing time?

KR/PR Dwyane Harris: Harris has had some quality returns, including a big one tht helped beat Cleveland. He doesn’t take kickoffs out much, but is a weapon in the return game.

WR Jordy Nelson: Say what you want about his long speed, Nelson is a trusted target in this passing game. He’s averaging 14.7 yards per catch, has three touchdowns and is on pace for 861 yards. Not bad for a 33-year old coming off a poor season.

DE Frostee Rucker: Rucker worked his way into the starting lineup, and is a highly graded run defender who helps in the base defense and has become an important defensive cog.

LB Tahir Whitehead: Whitehead hasn’t wowed enough after securing one of the few longer-term deals in free agency. The three-down linebacker must tackle better.

CB Daryl Worley: He’s a tough cornerback who is going to be a starter on the outside. Gruden has made that clear. Despite losing him to suspension the first-four games, Worley’s signing has been worth it.

S Reggie Nelson: Fans may not have wanted him back, but he has been a secondary fixture. Erik Harris has eaten into some of his snaps, but coaches still like him in the backfield helping line the defense up.

CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: DRC started and played most snaps last week. Will this late-signing retain a big role? Time will tell on that front, but he has helped on special teams and in a backup defensive role this year.

DT Clinton McDonald: He came on late, after Justin Ellis hit IR, and has fit right in. Gives the interior defensive line rotation some juice.

CB Rashaan Melvin: Melvin tweeted his frustrations after getting benched in Week 6. Gruden clapped back in a press conference. Will that, or his struggles with techniques he’s being asked to use, hinder his playing prospects? It’s certainly possible.

WR Martavis Bryant: The speed demon was acquired from Pittsburgh for a third-round pick, then cut and re-signed all with a possible suspension looming above him. On the field, Bryant hasn’t been great. He dropped a sure touchdown. He fumbled after a long gain. Generally speaking, Bryant hasn’t been the impact player the Raiders wanted after giving up such a valuable selection for him.

Role players

TE Derek Carrier: The former receiver hasn’t contributed much on offense or in the passing game, but is a quality special teams contributor.

LB Emmanuel Lamur: He’s the starting strongside linebacker, but doesn’t play much given the amount of time spent outside the base defense.

RB Doug Martin: Jon Gruden loves Martin and his running style. He still can’t get on the field, with most snaps given to Marshawn Lynch and Jalen Richard. This wasn’t the career renaissance Martin had in mind after signing here, but a bigger role could come if Lynch’s groin injury prevents BeastMode from playing.

FB Keith Smith: Gruden loves fullbacks, but Smith isn’t getting showered with touches early on. The attempts he has had haven’t gone great. He’s a core special teams player and a solid run blocker, as expected.

LB Kyle Wilber: He’s a special teams captain, and a good one.

TE Lee Smith: An excellent run blocker and special teams guy, as always.

DT Johnathan Hankins: In-season signing is part of the interior rotation, and has two fumble recoveries.

WR Brandon LaFell: Was signed relatively late, and is generally inactive on game day.

QB AJ McCarron: Gruden traded for him on Sept. 1, after deciding Manuel and Connor Cook weren’t worthy backups for Derek Carr.

Off the roster/On injured reserve

MLB Derrick Johnson: The 14th-year man signed in May and was a locker-room leader and team captain, but was unable to secure a three-down role and eventually lost snaps in sub packages that were his territory. He was given his release on Tuesday and is no longer with the club.

CB Shareece Wright: He wasn’t ever in the running for a roster spot, buried on the depth chart even during the offseason program. Wright now plays in Houston.

OT Breno Giacomini: Giacomini was signed to be a veteran leader along the front and maybe an early-season starter. A knee injury kept from filling either. He hurt a knee early and never recovered. He was released on Aug. 27, and took $1.3 million for his time in Oakland. Easy money.

QB Josh Johnson: One of Marshawn’s closest people wasn’t on the roster long.

DL Tank Carradine: He spent training camp atop the depth chart at defensive end, and then was rendered inactive most of the year until asking for his release.

WR Griff Whalen: Ended up on IR after a decent preseason, and was given an injury settlement.

QB EJ Manuel: Last year’s backup was cut before the regular season.

DT Ahtyba Rubin: Didn’t make much of an impact before landing on IR Sept. 13.

LS Andrew DePaola: Suffered a torn ACL in the season opener and landed on IR. That’s a bad beat, but he’ll be back.

K Mike Nugent: The veteran did well with the kicking job after Eddy Pineiro got hurt, but ended up on IR shortly after with a hip issue.

QB Christian Hackenberg: Gruden traded a conditional seventh-round pick for a quarterback that was a Raider roughly two weeks.

WR Ryan Switzer: The shifty slot man was acquired right after the NFL draft for Jihad Ward, but didn’t make it through the preseason. He was shipped to Pittsburgh in trade.

Raiders' trio of rookie defensive linemen bright spots in dark season


Raiders' trio of rookie defensive linemen bright spots in dark season

ALAMEDA – Arden Key took a long road to the quarterback. The Raiders' rookie edge rusher used bend, athleticism and some quality hand fighting to get around the Seattle Seahawks' right tackle and into the pocket. Russell Wilson was rolling away from Key, but the LSU product closed quickly and sacked a quarterback for the first time as a professional.

Veteran Bruce Irvin approached his protégé and said but a few words.

“About damn time.”

Key had been close several times over five games, but hadn’t finished the job. He finally got home in his best pass-rushing effort to date, with a sack and four pressures during an otherwise bleak 27-3 loss to Seattle.

Results matter more than the plays creating them, so Key won’t revel in a job well done. But, let’s be honest here. The Raiders are clearly playing the long game. These 2018 season results don’t matter much in their grand scheme.

Coaches are striving to foster young talent where available, and use veterans to patch other areas of weakness in an attempt to remain competitive on Sundays.

The Raiders are prominently playing three drafted rookie defensive lineman, whose development has been a rare bright spot during a dark time.

Fifth-round defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has been the best and most consistent. Key is getting more efficient as a pass rusher, and last week was given more opportunities to play against the run. Second-round interior lineman P.J. Hall was slowed by an ankle sprain – it cost him two games – but is slowly starting to make an impact.

Most rookies aren’t asked to play so much so quickly, but the Raiders don’t have a choice. They’re thin up front, especially after Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears. Hurst, Hall and Key haven’t set the world on fire – the Raiders' pass rush ranks among the league’s worst – but they learning and developing on the fly.

“It’s hard on them. It’s hard on them,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “These are three rookie players. I don’t know if there are three rookie D-Lineman or two rookie tackles playing this much on any other teams. Physically, it’s a challenge. They’re going up against full grown men in their fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth years. They’re in the trenches. They’re seeing schemes and combination blocks that are difficult to deal with.

"I thought Hurst did a good job of recognizing the traps. I thought he got off blocks. I saw Key get his first sack. I thought P.J. Hall was finally flying around again like he was in training camp. I think they’ll continue to get better. I know they have to prove that.”

There’s a connection between Key, Hurst and Hall, who have grown close through this shared experience. They root for each other and help each other technically where applicable. They know that they’ll play together for the next few seasons at least, and want to develop and comprise a formidable defensive front.

“We definitely have a bond,” Hall said. “We know we’re going to be here for a while, which is good because we enjoy playing together. I feel like we’re trying to build chemistry and hopefully that will help us all play better as we move forward.