Seen and Heard: Raiders' cornerbacks, defense pass huge test vs. Rams

Seen and Heard: Raiders' cornerbacks, defense pass huge test vs. Rams

NAPA -- Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has to be pleased with the way his new-look defense faired during joint practice sessions with the Los Angeles Rams. 

If your unit impresses Sean McVay then you're definitely doing something right. 

The defending NFC champion Rams chewed up the Raiders' defense in the season-opener a year ago, but the unit appears much more cohesive in Year 2 in Guenther's system and it showed over the past two days. 

"It goes a long way, like I said -- top-ranked offense, firing on all cylinders. They have pretty much the same guys, same offense is intact as last year," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "So for us to go out there and be able to see how we measure up, I think we did a good job the last two days. 

"I think all phases went well," Whitehead continued. "Nothing stood out to where, 'Man, we need to work on this.' Obviously, it's never perfect but you just keep working." 

In Thursday's red-zone session, Whitehead and Guenther's unit performed admirably against McVay's innovative attack. Both Whitehead and fellow linebacker Brandon Marshall registered key pass breakups, and defensive end Benson Mayowa pressured Rams quarterback Jared Goff into a throwaway. 

LA registered its red-zone Ws, however. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp beat Lamarcus Joyner for a touchdown, and the defensive line was blown off the ball on a Malcolm Brown rushing touchdown. 

In full-field 11-on-11 work, the Raiders cornerbacks came to play, with Gareon Conley, Trayvon Mullen and Daryl Worley each notching pass defenses, although Robert Woods later beat Worley for a touchdown toward the end of the session. 

Coming into joint practices, head coach Jon Gruden wanted to see how his defensive backs would do against the Rams' vaunted passing attack. In his eyes, they passed the test. 

"I'm pleased," Gruden said. "I don't think Nick Nelson got the work. He's been a real surprise the last couple months. But I think Conley has been better. I really am excited about Isaiah Johson and Trayvon, our two rookie corners. They are not intimidated. It's not too big for them. They've gotten better. They can do a lot of things with their and size." 

One aspect the Raiders' defense will have to improve is in tight end coverage. Gerald Everett had his way Thursday when covered by either Marshall, Whitehead or rookie safety Johnathan Abram. 

As for the much-talked-about pass rush, second-year defensive end Arden Key continues to impress in camp. He has looked stronger and has been able to get pressure during 11-on-11 work and pass-rush drills. Mayowa and Maurice Hurst also have looked good on the defensive line. 

Linebacker Koa Farmer and cornerback Dylan Mabin each registered an interception off Rams backup quarterback Blake Bortles. 

The Raiders' defense is a work in progress, but progress certainly is being made. 

Tempers Flare

While Day 1 of joint practices was uneventful, Day 2 got a little chippy when a skirmish broke out between the Raiders' offense and the Rams' defense. 

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and McVay was pleased both sides were able to gather their composure.

“Yeah. I think you always want to be smart." McVay said of the fight. "You want guys to stand up for one another. I’m not exactly sure what happened, how some of those things kind of got started. What I loved was the fact that our guys were able to regather themselves, had our poise and composure about ourselves – in terms of being able to finish out practice. I thought to credit both teams to be able to do that because you see when things get chippy early on, sometimes you end up having to cancel those practices. We definitely didn’t want to lose that practice opportunity and to the players’ credit, we didn’t.”

But what caused the skirmish? Whitehead has an idea. 

"It's always like that the second day, man," Whitehead said. "Because Day 1, you know, if you lost -- which I saw we took the W -- then tempers are flaring, coach is going to get on your case a little more, so you're going to go out there trying to get a little extra chippy, but at the end of the day, it was all competitive and good, and it's the nature of the game. No one went after each other seriously." 

Offensive action

Starting quarterback Derek Carr was sharp most of the day against a potent Rams defense, connecting on a few deep passes and several precise touchdown throws. 

His best is tough to pick, either a 50-plus yard bomb to speedster J.J. Nelson or an expertly placed connection with Hunter Renfrow in the back of the end zone. 

Carr also showed touch over the top getting DeAndre Washington a score right at the goal line. He found Tyrell Williams a few times in the session as well. 

There were some highlights but protection struggled at times, especially when the Raiders were set up in obvious passing downs. 

“We had some tough downs today,” Gruden said. “I called some plays that weren’t designed for base defense and they outnumbered us a few times. When you play second and 10 and third down against the Rams for a 15-play period, good luck. You know it’s a great lesson. Let’s not have Aaron Donald and [Michael] Brockers and these guys get to all their things. So it was a great learning experience, but I think Derek’s playing great for the most part. He took care of the football and made some big plays down the field again today.” 

-- Mike Glennon hit Rico Gafford for a big gain the receiver hauled in with one hand. The backup quarterback threw an interception to Rams cornerback Kevin Peterson one play earlier.

That was Glennon’s second pick, after throwing one to Micah Kiser earlier in the day on what looked like a miscommunication with his receiver.

-- Rookie Josh Jacobs created room to run, and the Raiders offensive line was decent but far from perfect against the Rams vaunted defensive front. 

Preseason time

The Raiders and Rams set to square off in the first preseason game Saturday at the Coliseum. After practice, Gruden noted a number of his starters would not see the field in Week 1 of the preseason. 

"You're not going to see some of the starters," Gruden said. "You saw them today, you saw them yesterday. They took about 120 reps. We're going to take a look at some young players. Some guys that need the opportunity. We got to see what the health of this team is. We only had one personnel grouping today ... We have to see who is healthy at tight end, which receivers are healthy, and when we have that will go with our game plan." 

"Once a Raider, Always a Raider"

After Marshawn Lynch made an appearance Wednesday at joint practices, former Raiders Charles Woodson and Warren Sapp were present Thursday in Napa. 

Gruden was pleased to see his former defensive tackle at camp. 

"Yeah, Sapp's out there," Gruden said. "So it was a little loud in the hotel last night. It's great to see Warren. One of the best players I ever coached."

[RELATED: Gruden lauds 'loyal' Raiders fans for support despite move]


-- Tight end Darren Waller has been limited to position drills since suffering a shoulder sprain last week, but he was active during seven-on-seven periods while wearing a red no-contact vest over his jersey. 

-- P.J. Hall, Nicholas Morrow, Kyle Wilber and Ryan Grant also did not participate in practice. Grant suffered a back contusion Wednesday. Wilber also has a sore back, while Morrow was excused for a dental appointment, Gruden told the media.

-- Antonio Brown once again was not at practice. 

-- Gabe Jackson had to be carted off after being rolled up on Thursday. 

NBC Sports Bay Area Raiders Insider Scott Bair contributed to this report.

Why Nick Kwiatkoski thought Raiders were 'best fit' in NFL free agency

Why Nick Kwiatkoski thought Raiders were 'best fit' in NFL free agency

Nick Kwiatkoski doesn’t have a massive social media following, but a tweet the veteran linebacker sent out on March 16 quickly went viral.

It didn’t include a single word. It contained a picture of Allegiant Stadium and nothing more, but it was a clear sign that the Las Vegas Raiders had landed their first unrestricted free agent while representing their new market.

Sources later confirmed Kwiatkoski agreed to join the Silver and Black on a three-year, $21 million contract, showing the Raiders were serious about upgrading a long deficient linebacker corps.

The deal came together quickly, on the first day of free agency’s open negotiating window, because Kwiatkoski loved what the Raiders had to say. He would join the Raiders as a full-time, three-down middle linebacker.

“I felt that I’ve earned that spot, and that’s something I looked for in free agency,” Kwiatkoski said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area, available in its entirety on the Raiders Talk Podcast. “When they told me that, it was very appealing.”

That wasn’t the only reason the former Chicago Bear signed with the Raiders.

“They called very early and, when I spoke to them, it was very clear there’s an excitement around the whole organization with the move to Las Vegas,” Kwiatkoski said. “That was one of a number of reasons why I [made my decision]. When we played them in London last year and I just loved the mentality they brought to the game where they come right at you. With their defensive scheme, I thought I’d fit right in. I gave it some time and took some other calls, but I ended up thinking the Raiders were the best fit for me.”

There was some thought he’d fit in well as the Bears’ middle linebacker, but that prospect was eliminated when Danny Trevathan signed a contract extension on March 9. Kwiatkoski proved worthy of a starting gig after taking over following Trevathan’s season-ending elbow injury in Week 9.

There was no going back after an excellent eight-game stretch that included 58 tackles, two sacks and interception. Especially, not with teams ready to court him on the open market and make him a major player.

While those numbers look solid, the clip below shows exactly what the Raiders are getting in Kwiatkoski, and he doesn’t even record a stat.

Kwiatkoski put Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook on his back during a Week 4 win over the Vikings, blowing up a play with raw power and aggression.

“That’s an example of how I enjoy playing. I like being physical, going downhill,” Kwiatkoski said. “That’s how I have always played, and I plan on continuing to do that.”

He’ll do that with the Silver and Black, while paired with fellow free-agent addition Cory Littleton.

“He’s a great linebacker,” Kwiatkoski said. “To be able to line up with him and call him my teammate is going to be fun.”

The former LA Ram is a true sideline-to-sideline presence and an excellent coverage linebacker, a perfect complement to Kwiatkoski’s strength going downhill as a run defender and blitzer. The former high school safety, who converted to linebacker at West Virginia, also is confident in coverage and running a defense from the middle linebacker spot.

[RELATED: Raiders go offense/defense in latest mock draft]

Chicago’s fourth-round draft pick back in 2016 always has worked hard and capitalized on opportunities when presented, helping him earn a lucrative deal with a Raiders team counting on him to be a consistent playmaker. Earning this opportunity certainly is a point of pride as he moves on to the next chapter of his career.

“There were definitely times where I got down on myself after certain things happened, but to see how it has all played out … for me, no matter what my role was or what the situation was, I just put my head down and kept working,” Kwiatkoski said. “For that to all payoff is really gratifying. You can only control what you can control, and that’s what I focused on. I never lost sight of my goals. No matter what my role was, I was determined to work like a starter and play each day like it’s my last. For it to work out the way it has, with this new opportunity, it’s really gratifying.”

Raiders restructure Rodney Hudson's contract to create 2020 cap space

Raiders restructure Rodney Hudson's contract to create 2020 cap space

The Raiders took on a bit more salary in free agency than they were legally allowed, but restructured center Rodney Hudson’s massive contract to get back under the NFL salary cap.

The team’s cap and contracts people got creative with the deal, obtained by ESPN on Wednesday morning, to provide relief in 2020 and push increased cap hits down the road where they have more flexibility.

The Raiders converted $11.6 million of Hudson’s base salary into a signing bonus, freeing up $9.28 in cap space for 2020. His cap hits will go up $2.32 million in subsequent seasons, which includes two voidable years at the end of the deal to spread out his cap hits.

The Silver and Black had to do that now to get Carl Nassib’s deal in while staying under the cap. He’s set to make $25 million over three years, with a $7.75 million cap hit in 2020, per

After factoring in the Nassib deal, the Hudson restructure and some other small additions, OTC reports the Raiders have $5.214 million in cap space. They might have to make another cap adjustment down the road, with $9.408 million required to pay their draft picks as currently slotted. They won’t have to make that move until later in the spring and summer, when they start signing draft picks.

[RELATED: Ranking Raiders' offensive players ahead of 2020 NFL draft]

The Raiders own the Nos. 12 and 19 overall selections, with three third-round picks and one each in the fourth and fifth rounds.

Hudson signed a long-term contract extension last season worth $33.7 million over three years, with $24.4 million guaranteed. Moving money around helps the Raiders stay right with the cap without hurting future standing and keeping all the talent the Raiders currently employ.