Raiders training camp ended with a final Sunday afternoon practice and Monday morning meeting, events dominated by Antonio Brown’s presence (or lack thereof).
The superstar receiver has hijacked the narrative surrounding the Silver and Black’s Napa experience, either with his recovery from frostbitten feet or an unwavering desire to wear an older helmet that has not been permitted for use.
Brown hasn’t practiced since July 30 for one reason or another, and participated in just one full-speed session in Napa. He was away from camp roughly 10 days rehabbing his feet and skipped out on Sunday’s work over his helmet, which prompted general manager Mike Mayock to publicly ask whether Brown is “all-in or all-out.”
Mayock also said something important in his statement regarding Brown’s absence: “We have 89 guys busting their tails. We are really excited about where this franchise is going.”
He's right. The Raiders made progress as a team during camp, and are far better than they were during Jon Gruden's first season back as head coach.
While the top camp storylines would all involve Brown, other significant developments have occurred during the team’s three-plus weeks in Napa. Let’s take a look at those not involving the high-priced receiver:
Derek Carr’s playing his best football
The Raiders' starting quarterback said in a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports Bay Area that he’s playing his best football in this training camp. He wasn’t lying. The sixth-year veteran has been accurate and in firm command of an offense filled with upgrades on the line and at the skill positions.
He seems poised for a big year not unlike 2016, when he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Carr is comfortable in Gruden’s offense, and is operating it with conviction and a bit more aggressiveness.
Carr has said that he’s a bit testier, a bit more demanding this season and cares far less about what people think. That’s a positive development for the Raiders, who employ a quarterback with excellent physical tools entering the season with supreme confidence.
Tough choices ahead at skill spots
The Raiders have more quality receivers than they have roster spots for them. The same can be said at the running back position. Some NFL-caliber skill players will get cut in a few weeks after quality preseasons representing the Silver and Black. That’s a good problem to have for Raiders coaches, who entered last season with a talent-deficient offensive unit.
Running back DeAndre Washington is a solid example of someone who has has an excellent camp, yet remains firmly on the roster bubble. The same can be said for several receivers, including Ryan Grant, Marcell Ateman and Keelan Doss. The Raiders have some tough choices to make there, and players can complicate them by finishing the preseason strong.
“It’ll be a challenge for us,” Gruden said. “[General Manager Mike] Mayock is going to have to have his boxing gloves on. We’re going to have some fights about this roster.”
Jury still out on defensive front
The Raiders' defensive line clearly is better than a year ago. New position coach Brenston Buckner has inspired confidence and consistently improved execution.
Does that mean the unit is good? The jury’s still out on that.
The defensive interior is more talented, with Maurice Hurst elevating his play and Johnathan Hankins finding old form.
Clelin Ferrell is still working through kinks and should be solid, but there’s improvement required for him to be a dynamic presence. Arden Key has shown vast improvement against the run and pass.
But, generally speaking, offensive tackles Kolton Miller and Trent Brown dominated the edge in training camp. Whether that’s a plus for the offense or a minus for the defense lies in your perspective, but the defense still has plenty to prove this preseason and later this fall when games actually count.
Coordinator Paul Guenther has a creative blitz package, but most times the Raiders must stop the run and get after the quarterback with a four-man front. If the line can be simply solid, the defense as a whole will look vastly improved.
Rookies off to a great start
The Raiders ended camp with five rookies as presumptive starters, with major contributions expected from two more. That’s a ton for any team, even one rebuilding after a major teardown.
The first Mike Mayock/Jon Gruden draft class looks like a good one thus far, with talented, character guys whom should make an immediate impact. All three first-round picks, defensive end Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram should all play a ton right away. Hunter Renfrow’s currently the top slot receiver. Undrafted rookie A.J. Cole has the punter’s job, while tight end Foster Moreau and Trayvon Mullen are competing for significant snaps in 2019.
These guys have all proven they can play -- Jacobs might have the highest first-year ceiling -- and are willing to work hard improving their craft. Those are traits vital to a draft class the Raiders hope becomes the bedrock of this roster rebuild.
Leadership core vastly improved
Carr and center Rodney Hudson have always been team leaders, but they didn’t get much help during last year’s disappointment. They have some assistance this time around from several newcomers.
Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner have taken control of this Raiders defense. Brown and Richie Incognito are exceeding expectations as teammates and leaders along the offensive line.
Respected veterans are vital with a team skewing younger, and this leadership core has inspired confidence it can carry the group through good times and rough patches.
Gabe Jackson’s injury a huge blow
The Raiders have lost star right guard Gabe Jackson for the season’s first quarter at least, likely longer, after he suffered an MCL injury during joint practices against the L.A. Rams.
The news didn’t even make “Hard Knocks,” and got swallowed by all the Brown drama. Jackson’s quiet and a private person, but he’s also well respected and a mauler playing inside. Losing him for any stretch is a gut punch.
His loss will be felt up front, where right guard becomes the most important position battle of this remaining preseason.