Raiders rookies envision building dynasty after strong start to 2019

Raiders rookies envision building dynasty after strong start to 2019

OAKLAND -- When Jon Gruden arrived back in Oakland, it was clear he didn't like what he saw.

Most of the players didn't fit what he wanted to do -- either from a culture or scheme perspective -- and so Year 1 of Gruden's second reign in silver and black turned into a Year 0 teardown. The losses piled up. Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper were traded away as Gruden angled for draft capital in order to craft the team in his image.

To build the next great era of Raiders football, Gruden believed, the building blocks must be acquired and put in place.

Many of those building blocks were acquired in April when the Raiders selected nine players in the 2019 NFL Draft.

There were first-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs and Johnathan Abram, yes. But there also was second-round pick Trayvon Mullen, fourth-round pick Foster Moreau, fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow and undrafted rookies Keelan Doss and Alec Ingold, who the Raiders later brought on board. 

Ferrell, the No. 4 overall pick, hasn't popped yet, but the confidence still is there that he can be a difference-maker on the defensive line. Abram injured his shoulder in Week 1 and will miss the entire season. Mullen didn't see a lot of snaps early on, but was given the starting spot after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley to the Houston Texans, and Mullen has been as-advertised. 

The defensive rookies are talented, but it's what's happened on offense that has to have Gruden beaming from ear-to-ear.

Jacobs has been a revelation at running back, breaking Marcus Allen's record for rushing yards by a Raiders rookie Sunday in a Week 9 win over the Lions. He has shown great vision, power, elusiveness and still has yet to showcase his ability as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

Moreau, who was thought of as a project tight end coming out of LSU, was thrust into a bigger role once the Raiders were forced to alter their offensive philosophy in the wake of Antonio Brown's unexpected departure. Moreau wasn't used a ton in the passing game in Baton Rouge, but it's clear that was due to a run-heavy offensive scheme and not his ability to be a weapon, as he has become a reliable target for quarterback Derek Carr.

Renfrow's college credentials are well-documented. A College Football Playoff National Championship Game hero for Clemson, Renfrow racked up clutch catch after clutch catch during his career in Death Valley. He won the slot receiver job in training camp, beating out veteran Ryan Grant. After a slow start to his NFL career, Renfrow has come on over the last two games, catching 10 balls for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning, 9-yard touchdown in the Raiders' win over the Lions on Sunday. 

All told, Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow accounted for all four of the Raiders' scores in the win over the Lions. This group of rookies came in with a clear goal, knowing they were going to be the ground floor of a Raiders rebuild, and they've worked hard to get the Silver and Black back on track right away.

"That's something that we've been priding ourselves on since we came in," Jacobs said of the rookie class. "We wanted to change the culture, start a dynasty here. We all came in and we made that agreement together. Seeing that we are all doing so good right now, it's working."

The Raiders became the first team since the Seahawks in 2015 to have rookies score all four touchdowns in a victory. Jacobs racked up 128 yards and two touchdowns. Renfrow caught six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown and Moreau's lone catch was a 3-yard scoring strike.

The offensive rookies have been grinding since Day 1, and they are starting to bear the fruits of their labor.

"Our rookie class takes a lot of pride, with Alec and Keelan, on the offensive side," Renfrow said. "All of us just trying to be our best and try to get this thing turned around. We feel like we are a good class and we have the chance to do that."

Gruden was heavily criticized for trading away two of his best players in Mack and Cooper. The Raiders still are looking for a way to replace the hole Mack left on the defensive line, one they hope Ferrell can help fill in time. Many questioned Gruden's ability to evaluate talent after spending so many years away from the game, but his rookie class has delivered so far and have the Raiders 4-4 and in the playoff hunt.

[RELATED: Grading Raiders' offense, defense in thrilling win vs. Lions]

Carr now has been a Raider for six seasons. He has had four head coaches and has seen different blueprints drawn up to get the Raiders going in the right direction. Each plan has been torn up. stuck in a shredder and discarded in favor of a different vision. But these rookies give Carr hope the Raiders now are on the right path.

"I talk about it all the time, you have to lay a foundation," Carr said Sunday. "We've laid one and jackhammered it out about 14 times since I've been here, right? This one I hope stays, that's for sure. But this foundation is pretty good, man.

"I've watched our rookies be able to play big roles. Not just packages of plays. They can play everything. Coach Gruden demands it of them and they pick it up. These guys don't make mental mistakes that many times. I can think of Josh Jacobs, just a few on one hand throughout this whole season. As a running back in the NFL that's crazy, that doesn't happen. Usually, every time it's a pass play they take those rookie running backs out because they don't know what they are doing. You see a guy like Foster Moreau run his route precisely, be where I need him to be and in the timing I need him to be there for a touchdown.

"You see Hunter Renfrow on the scramble drill do what coaches tell him to do. If you get a group of guys that will listen to their coaches and bust their tails at practice, which they do, this is the fruits of what can happen."

The foundation is being laid, with Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow being key building blocks for an offensive future that should excite those in silver and black.

As Sunday's performance showed, these rookies have a goal in mind. Greatness for themselves and the Raiders. A plan that might just be ahead of schedule.

Mark Davis opens up as Raiders' second Oakland era dawns, Vegas awaits

Mark Davis opens up as Raiders' second Oakland era dawns, Vegas awaits

Growing up around the franchise his father, the legendary Al Davis, controlled for a half century, Mark Davis is never far from the memories that come when sifting through history. Which has made this year, the Raiders' last in Oakland, so fraught with emotion.

But not for the obvious reason, the team leaving its ancestral home.

Oh, sure, there is regret about how the Raiders' return to Oakland unfolded, the team coming back in 1995, after 13 years in Los Angeles, hoping but failing to regain the football dominance and local devotion that defined it from the mid-1960s through 1980. Part II never reached the heights of Part I, with Super Bowl victories, and the team and community forming a bond so tight that, to many, their 1982 departure was not unlike losing a family member.

That precise feeling has landed upon Davis this year. He is operating beneath a shroud of sorrow not because the team has all but extinguished its playoff hopes or because the last game in the faded, fabled Oakland Coliseum, scheduled for Sunday afternoon, will signal the end an era.

It’s because the Raiders are family to Davis, and many of his family members have left over the past 12 months.

Josh Atkinson, son of former Raider George Atkinson, passed away last December. His service in January was the beginning. In the months since, the Raiders have lost, to name a few, former running back Clem Daniels (March), former linebacker Dan Connors (April), former assistant coach Gunther Cunningham (May), Hall of Fame semifinalist Cliff Branch (August), former linebacker Neiron Ball (September) and Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown (October).

George Atkinson III, twin brother of Josh, died Nov. 29, three days before what would have been his 27th birthday.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Davis said Friday. “To lose Cliff and Willie, so close together ... Willie was one of my mom’s best friends. And Cliff was my best friend. Those were really tough.

“It started with Josh. That was the early bookend. And now George, two weeks ago, is the other bookend. I hope. We still have another three weeks to go.”

Davis copes with the grief, he says, by compartmentalizing everything. There is an NFL team to run, meetings to attend -- such as two days in Dallas earlier this week -– and decisions to make that could affect the lives of thousands of people.

He understands there will be broken hearts, once more, when the team packs up and heads to Las Vegas. He also hopes fans will continue to support the team that in many ways gave Oakland an identity that spread around the globe.

“There’s no question about it,” Davis said. “The Raiders and Oakland grew up together. We were the stepchild of San Francisco. We were just Oakland. And I believe my dad took special pride in that and in building it up.

“The Raiders were born in Oakland, and Oakland will always be part of our DNA. There’s no doubt about that.”

The magic that made the Raiders special beyond the confines of the NFL was built in the 1960s and 1970s, behind stars such as Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum, Gene Upshaw, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett, Brown and Branch. They were high-profile, near-mythic figures, none more than Al Davis, the swaggering brash man at the top, taking no prisoners.

Part II in Oakland mostly was a disaster. The finances pleased no one. The team floundered through its worst of times. When Al Davis died in 2011, the Raiders had not had a winning season in eight years.

[RELATED: Derek Carr's special bond with Coliseum]

Which is why Mark Davis spent six years, beginning shortly after his father’s death, chasing Jon Gruden, whose culture change in 1998 pushed the team to three consecutive postseasons. Gruden finally relented in January 2018, lured back by a 10-year contract worth $100 million.

“We’re in a better place now,” Davis said. “We’ve got stability for the next 10 years.”

As the team goes to Vegas, the memories, good and bad, remain mostly in Oakland. Still, Davis’ fondest recall of Raiders in Oakland, Part II, is rather surprising inasmuch it did not occur in Gruden’s first term as coach or in any of the four playoff seasons over the past 24 years.

No, it came during the unremarkable two years during which Dennis Allen was the coach.

“The most memorable night, to me, was that Thursday night game against the Chiefs,” Davis said of a game played in 2014. “We were 0-10. It was pouring rain. The place was sold out and crazy. The crowd filled it up. We beat them (24-20) and got our first win of the season.

“That night was a reminder of what the Raider Nation is all about, and how they’ve supported the team and, hopefully, will continue to support the team in the future.”

That future will take place in Las Vegas, where $2 billion, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium, with a retractable dome, reportedly is 75 percent complete and expected to be ready to open before the 2020 season. It will have grass turf on a field that can be slid into and out of the stadium, as is the case with University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

This, Davis insists, is the result of failed negotiations to keep the Raiders in Oakland. After numerous attempts over the past decade to strike a deal that would allow the team to remain in place, it reached a point where it became clear to Davis and his fellow NFL owners that the bargaining would not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

[RELATED: Raiders legends will struggle with Coliseum goodbye]

Vegas was waiting. The desert mecca flashed wads of cash and acres of land, and, well, Davis and his group decided to jump.

“The Oakland Raiders were established in 1960,” Davis said. “The Los Angeles Raiders were established in 1982. And the Las Vegas Raiders are being established in 2020. It’s a new era, and we’ve got a new residence.”

Davis said he’s not particularly nostalgic about Part II in Oakland. He went through all of that back in 1982. It’s about business now, and cherishing memories created by years of football but ultimately populated by people within the Raiders family.

Raiders' Tyrell Williams playing through 'significant' plantar fasciitis

Raiders' Tyrell Williams playing through 'significant' plantar fasciitis

ALAMEDA – Tyrell Williams scored four touchdowns in his first four games as a member of the Raiders, with 216 receiving yards to boot. The veteran receiver seemed to be integrating himself well into a new offense, but he was already battling a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis.

The nagging, extremely painful foot ailment struck in Week 2, but he didn’t bow out of the lineup until Week 4. Williams missed two games before coming back into the fray to help a weakened and floundering Raiders receiver corps.

Williams has had some good moments and some pretty bad ones since his return, with lower efficiency than he’s used to. While Williams won’t excuse lackluster play, Raiders coaches have come to his defense when asked about his health.

Williams’ plantar fasciitis is still bugging him. Pretty bad, as a matter of fact, despite him practicing fully on a consistent basis.

“Yeah, it’s been a real challenge,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said Friday. “We’ve had a lot of foot problems around here this year. He’s been dealing with it really since the second week of the season and he missed a few games. He came back and hasn’t really healed. He’s managed it. We try to manage him on the practice field, but give him credit, he’s playing through pain and we thank him for that.”

[RELATED: Worley questionable for Raiders-Jaguars game]

It’s something Williams will continue to fight through as the Raiders head toward the end of the season. Rest is the best medicine, and he won’t be able to do that for a few more weeks.

“It’s a pretty significant injury, but he’s battling through it,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “He’s taking medication before every game trying to manage the pain, but certainly every week that’s something he’s had to deal with.”