Top Raiders training camp storylines that don't involve Antonio Brown

Top Raiders training camp storylines that don't involve Antonio Brown

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.

New Raiders receiver Trevor Davis working hard to be ready vs. Vikings

New Raiders receiver Trevor Davis working hard to be ready vs. Vikings

ALAMEDA – Trevor Davis went to Cal and is from Martinez, but hasn’t spent time at home since the Raiders traded for him Wednesday afternoon.

He went straight from Green Bay to the Silver and Black’s training complex, immediately immersing himself in the Raiders' schemes.

He doesn’t have much time, after all, to get ready for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings. That’s why this trade isn’t a homecoming quite yet.

“I’m locked in at the hotel, in my playbook the whole time,” Davis said. “Going back and forth [to Martinez] is too far for me.”

The Raiders need Davis to get adjusted quickly, with return man/reserve receiver Dwayne Harris likely out a stretch with an ankle injury. He could take on Harris’ role on the team right away.

Harris is a return man first. While getting up to speed offensively by Sunday may be tough, it’s realistic to think Davis could return right away.

“It’s much more simplistic when comparing special teams to offense, so it’s easier to plug yourself into that,” Davis said. “That’s why I might be more ready to hop in there on special teams. Hopefully I’m involved in both soon, but I’m preparing to be ready for anything.”

Return help is a given for Davis, but the Raiders need receiving depth pretty badly. Ryan Grant hasn’t produced early on, J.J. Nelson has dealt with an ankle injury and Keelan Doss is a work in progress.

Davis can certainly help stretch the field with pure speed, something sorely needed in the pattern. He’s trying to use each moment to overcome the challenges of integrating to a new team during the season, including enlisting former Packer and current Raiders backup quarterback DeShone Kizer to tutor him in this scheme.

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Davis admitted he never saw the move coming, but hopes to make the most of his time back home.

“You have to come in and be ready for anything,” Davis said. “The NFL is like that. Everything can change in a blink of an eye. I was all the way across the country 24 hours ago. Now I’m here, and I need to put my best foot forward and show these coaches what I can do.”

Raiders plan to expand Josh Jacobs' role in passing game moving forward

Raiders plan to expand Josh Jacobs' role in passing game moving forward

ALAMEDA -- Raiders running back Josh Jacobs is off to a strong start. His snap counts suggest he’s the Silver and Black’s clear-cut feature back, taking most of the carries through two games.

He’s worthy of them, having churned out 184 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries. A total of 11 carries have resulted in first downs, per analytics site Pro Football Focus, with four rushes of 10-plus yards. That includes a 51-yarder through the right side and down the boundary on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Jacobs has done everything well thus far, though there’s one thing he hasn’t been asked to do much.

Jacobs has only been targeted once in the passing game despite 22 total snaps as a receiver, and he caught it and ran for a 28-yard pickup. The Alabama product simply hasn't been out on obvious passing downs, either.

Secondary backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington have only been targeted five times for 28 yards on four receptions.

Jacobs has played 68 snaps from the backfield while Washington and Richard have 43 combined, with a significant portion of those snaps given while Jacobs was getting an IV versus Kansas City.

Jacobs' light receiving load has raised some eyebrows, considering his prowess catching passes out of the backfield.

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There’s some thought that the team might be saving that option for an important moment down the line. The Raiders, however, clearly want to unleash their first-round draft pick’s full potential.

“It’s still early in the season, early in the process,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “We’re happy with Josh Jacobs and the way he’s running the football. When we have put the ball in his hands, he has produced. We’ll look to expand his role as well.”