Raiders

Three veteran additions who will make biggest impact on Raiders season

Three veteran additions who will make biggest impact on Raiders season

We’ve seen this new Raiders roster in snippets, during occasional offseason practices open to the press. We’ve been given clear examples of chemistry during this growth period, more often in team-sanctioned photos and individual Instagram stories.

That’s an objective during a relatively slow stretch, with games still months away.

Intensity elevates in training camp later this month, and mettle will be tested with pads and physicality and Napa’s never-ending work schedule. Then things get real when guys start getting cut and this team finally starts playing for keeps.

That’s when we’ll see how much of an impact these new veterans have on a Raiders roster skewing dramatically younger. Leaders must be stable during tough times, making others better with words and, far more often, with action. Here are three veteran additions who should make the greatest overall impact on the 2019 Raiders:

WR Antonio Brown

Brown might be the NFL’s hardest worker. The man never quits, going full speed in every practice and walk-through, with individual side sessions at high schools and Bay Area parks after being acquired in a trade. He takes workouts on vacation, finding time to get better while in Maui. He crowd-sourced workout partners in Paris. While many do as much without putting it all on social media, Brown is showing everyone, teammates included, that his grind never stops.

He has set a new standard for work rate and practice effort, which should lead to major on-field production. That, above all else, will be his greatest contribution in 2019. Putting up just average numbers (for him) would be a huge boon for all things Raiders, and give the Silver and Black a true superstar who comes through in the clutch.

All is good right now, but it will be important for Brown to maintain positive energy even when things hit the skids during the regular season. The Raiders will have rough patches navigating a brutal schedule. Brown’s used to 10 wins per year. How will he handle losing streaks? That will be as important as anything. If he keeps working hard for better days, the skill players will follow suit. If he sulks, lulls could last longer.

DB Lamarcus Joyner

Joyner isn’t much of a rah-rah guy, but he’s highly respected throughout the talented young secondary. Safeties love him. Cornerbacks respect him. Both positions can learn something from someone who has done it well for a long time.

While he focused on slot cornerback during this offseason program, his impact will be felt in several areas. He’s undoubtedly the team’s best free safety and can slide over there in the base defense if the Karl Joseph/Johnathan Abram pairing doesn’t pan out.

He should be a stabilizing force in the entire secondary both as a sage and a productive player who can quiet part of an opponent’s passing game. He isn’t afraid to mix things up and can make others better around him, making this secondary far better than it was a year ago. Joyner didn’t come cheap in free agency, but he’ll be worth the freight if he plays to his high standard and helps others improve during the season either through words or example.

[RELATED: Entire Raiders draft class signed up as Jacobs inks deal]

LB Vontaze Burfict

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther says there were aspects of his defensive scheme he didn’t use last year without a trusted field general to execute it.

That’s not a slight on Tahir Whitehead or Nicholas Morrow. Guenther’s defense can be complicated and takes time to master. Nobody, however, knows it better than Burfict. The veteran linebacker ran it for years in Cincinnati and has a kinship with Guenther that is evident on the field.

Burfict’s a Raider now, and he has been helpful teaching subtle nuances of this scheme to his teammates despite being a new kid in town. He has been a great asset during the offseason, and he will be again in training camp.

He’ll have to prove productive to sustain a positive impact. His last season was a struggle, with injuries and concussion issues sapping his availability and effectiveness. He’s on this list due to a belief he’ll get right and be effective in the base defense at least. Burfict has been a solid tackler and tone-setter who plays right on the edge, sometimes going over it, in his past. Finding vintage on-field form and sustained health will be key to maximizing his impact. That’s important for a defense that needs Burfict at his best.

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.