Jon Gruden

Five new Raiders with something to prove in 2018 season

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USATSI

Five new Raiders with something to prove in 2018 season

The Raiders are taking some time off during the dead period of the NFL offseason. Even early bird Jon Gruden is slapping the snooze button these days, spending some quality time with family before training camp cranks up later this month.

Coaches and players are still finding time for work, sometimes while they’re on vacation. The Raiders want to hit the ground running this preseason, with many motivated to show well in silver and black. That’s especially true for a large class of new Raiders, many of whom hope to silence detractors.

Here are five newcomers with plenty to prove in 2018:

5. CB Rashaan Melvin

Lists like this are normally reserved for guys coming off injuries or down years. Melvin doesn’t fit that mold. The 28-year old had his best year in 2017, often shutting down top receivers as Indy’s top cornerback. He allowed a paltry 60.3 passer rating when targeted, with three picks, 10 passes defensed and just two touchdowns allowed.

Those stats didn’t produce a robust free-agent market. Melvin ended up signing a one-year, $5.5 million deal with Oakland, and is now working to show he’s not a one-year wonder and can stay healthy for 16 games. An ovation-worthy encore would surely earn a long-term, bigger-money deal.

Melvin made his motivation clear on Twitter a few weeks back.

4. WR Jordy Nelson

Nelson had a down year in 2017. It started well, with six touchdowns in the first four games he played. Then all-world Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down, and things hit the skids. He averaged just 9.1 yards per reception, and didn’t score after that early flurry.

That led some to say Nelson lost a step at age 32 he would not recover. The Packers asked him to take a massive pay cut, and ended up releasing him in March. The Raiders swooped in quickly with a two-year deal and plenty of guaranteed money.

Nelson has been praised for his attention to detail and position-group leadership, and will fit into the starting lineup with Amari Cooper and Martavis Bryant. He had four straight 1,000-yard seasons prior to last year. His worth won’t be defined by a monster statistical year. Reliability, leadership and red-zone performance will show if Nelson’s still got it.

3. RB Doug Martin

The veteran rusher has had an uneven career. Excellent production has come in spurts, with dominance in 2012 and 2015. The last 1,400-plus yard season was followed by two seasons of 2.9 yards per carry, which led Tampa Bay to cut his this winter.

He met Gruden for lunch at a Florida golf course, and the exchange convinced Gruden the 29-year old was ready to work and prove he had plenty left in the tank. His work was praised during the offseason program, though practice in pads and preseason play will offer stronger evidence of 2018 effectiveness. Showing well in camp could lead to an increased role behind starter Marshawn Lynch. Gruden likes using multiple backs in his offense, and could make steady contributions in the run game.

2. MLB Derrick Johnson

The longtime Kansas City Chief was let go by the team that drafted him in 2005, but it was not the end of his NFL journey. Some thought he’d call it a career at age 35, especially after suffering an Achilles’ tendon tear in Dec. 2016, but he found a new home in Oakland and a strong bond with Gruden. The Raiders need stability in the middle, and Johnson will provide on-field leadership. There’s no doubt about that.

Johnson must prove capable of being a three-down linebacker effective against the run and pass. Marquel Lee is available should the Raiders require a platoon, but Johnson doesn’t want that. The Raiders need his expertise inside at all times.

1. Head coach Jon Gruden

Gruden isn’t a newcomer, but it’s been nearly two decades since he roamed the silver and black sidelines. He hasn’t coached since 2008, but returned to the Raiders in January after nine years in the broadcast booth.

Gruden has said several times he has something to prove to his critics. That might be a self-motivational tool. There aren’t many in the East Bay, where the fan base as rallied behind him and players have loved the intensity and passion he brings to practice and meetings.

Some assume his old school tendencies and his “bringing it back to 1998” comment this offseason implies he is resistant to change or offensive innovation. That’s not the case, not by a long shot. We’ll see lots modern offense Gruden studied as an ESPN broadcaster and in his downtime at his Tampa offices, with new wrinkles unveiled as game plans dictate.

Gruden has made a solid impression in his return to coaching but, as it always is in his line of work, effectiveness will be determined by wins and losses. He won’t be graded off one-year alone, especially without solid roster depth, but Gruden wants to start fast and re-establish Raiders winning ways.

Gruden's 'final examination' caps productive Raiders offseason program, but he has one regret

Gruden's 'final examination' caps productive Raiders offseason program, but he has one regret

ALAMEDA – The Raiders didn’t wear helmets Thursday during their final minicamp practice. Reps were executed at less than full speed in a shorter session.

Physically speaking, it was a walk-through practice. Mentally? It was a bootcamp workout.

Head coach Jon Gruden put his players through the ringer, running triple-digit reps with near constant change, to see how much players learned since starting the offseason program.

“We just had a final examination today,” Gruden said. “We ran about 100 plays in a walk-through basis, no-huddle, two-minute, tight red zone, audible, different blitzes. We pulled guys in and out of the lineup, put them at different positions, tried to create some muscle memory that these guys can go home and remember what some of these things sound like and feel like. But, I’m really pleased with the offseason. I couldn’t really be more pleased.”

Gruden has lamented player access restrictions since re-joining the Raiders in January, especially over the offseason program. Maximizing time and reps, while following the NFL’s practice rules, was his ultimate goal during a stretch that started April 9 and ended with Thursday’s minicamp practice/pop quiz.

“We’re going to try to lead the league in effort and try to lead the league in reps,” Gruden said. “Repetition is the mother of learning. … A lot of people right now are trying to eliminate reps, eliminate practices and I think it’s hogwash. We have to create as many reps as possible, because it’s just a matter of time before your backup left guard has to play. It’s a matter of time before your backup quarterback has to play and if they don’t get any reps, you’re not going to be very good at what you do.”

Gruden’s goal this offseason was to make practices uncomfortable, to challenge and push his players at every turn. Creating game-like situations, with the pressure that comes with it, was important while installing new schemes.

Quarterback Derek Carr and middle linebacker Derrick Johnson lead their top units well, creating positive results on offense and defense.

Gruden challenged young players, from the last three draft classes especially, to prepare to be better in 2018. The Raiders will need results from draft picks who haven’t produced enough to this point.

“I want our young guys to stay on the gas pedal, be smart in what they do in the offseason and try to keep their football very close to them; keep studying, keep training and getting mentally and physically fresh,” Gruden said. “If we do that, we’ll have a chance.”

Gruden’s final offseason press conference was overwhelmingly positive, but the head coach held one regret.

“I’d feel a lot better if No. 52 was walking around here right now,” Gruden said of Khalil Mack, currently holding out for a big-money contract extension. “He’s the man. He’s the guy we have to figure out how to get back in here.”

Here are a few more notes and observations from Thursday’s practice:

-- Cornerback Gareon Conley missed his second straight practice on Thursday with a groin strain suffered two days before. Gruden called it a minor ailment, and that Conley could’ve practiced if allowed.

The Raiders chose to play it safe in minicamp, and Conley will be ready to go in training camp in late July.

-- In other injury news Marcus Gilchrist (calf) missed all three minicamp days, but Gruden wasn’t concerned about the strain. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (ACL tear) and rookie cornerback Nick Nelson (meniscus tear) missed the offseason program recovering from surgery, but were seen running on the side throughout minicamp. Both guys should be ready to start training camp.

Right tackle Breno Giacomini (undisclosed) return after two days out, and ran with the first unit. He also spent time coaching Kolton Miller during one down point in practice. Donald Penn has done the same, as players and coaches alike continue to help the team’s first-round pick.

Penn was able to work with the first unit during a walk through, though he skipped full-speed team drills during the offseason program while recovering from foot surgery.

-- Gruden will have right elbow surgery for a second time on Friday to repair an joint that has proven bothersome. Gruden originally hurt it in a practice during his previous Raiders stint, trying emulate Junior Seau, and took a shot from guard Mo Collins.

He had surgery then, but his elbow is acting up again and needs to get fixed.

“I can hardly throw and I can’t golf,” Gruden said. “So, hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll be 100 percent.”

-- Gruden singled out a few unheralded players for standout offseasons. Receiver Ryan Switzer, who has worked extensively as the first-team slot receiver, was first off his tongue. First-round offensive tackle Kolton Miller and linebackers Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow also got a shoutout. So did linebackers coach David Lippincott, who has worked under Paul Guenther in Cincinnati.

Gruden mentioned tight end Jared Cook and safety Erik Harris positively on Tuesday.

-- Coaches put the kicking competition in the spotlight to end Thursday’s practice, giving Eddy Piñeiro and Giorgio Tavecchio field-goal attempts with players taunting them from extremely close range.

Piñeiro went 1-for-3 and Tavecchio went 3-for-4 under such duress.

Expect the pressure to stay on those guys during training camp.

“We’re just letting those kickers know that anything is possible in training camp,” Gruden said. “We’re going to have a competitive situation. I think the rookie out of Florida is a capable guy. He’s a capable guy. And I also think Tavecchio, he’s not going to relinquish that job.

“It’s going to be competitive, we’re going to try to stage some competitive drills, not only at the kicking position, but some of these young players they might get their eyes opened the first few days of pads.”

Jon Gruden gives up OTA day to host 'Raiders U'

Jon Gruden gives up OTA day to host 'Raiders U'

ALAMEDA – Practice time is Jon Gruden’s gold. It’s a commodity precious to the new Raiders head coach, who lamented the league’s offseason practice restrictions at several points since returning to the Silver and Black in January.

It’s hard to blame the guy. Guidelines weren’t as strict a decade ago, when Gruden last coached in this league. He has limited windows to conduct important work, installing schemes and building chemistry on a roster altered significantly this offseason.

That’s why it was surprising to many when word leaked last week Gruden would be giving up an OTA.

“We heard last week that Santa might come and give us a day off if we had some good OTA days,” running back Jalen Richard said. “He told us about the tournament this week, and said he was going to let us coach the kids.”

The tournament was called “Raiders U,” a seven-on-seven passing league tournament featuring East Bay High School teams. Raiders players coached these units, and coaches officiated a round robin tournament that ended with Dublin High (coached by linebacker Kyle Wilber and others) winning the championship over Marshawn Lynch’s Richmond Kennedy High.

The Dallas Cowboys do something similar, and special teams coordinator brought the idea west when he joined the Raiders. Gruden jumped on it quickly, and decided to exchange an OTA for a chance to give prep football players a cool experience.

The move was welcome by players who have been grinding through the offseason program, and still a surprise even though coaches frequently drop the final OTA practice.

“Coach Gruden is an absolute wild man. I can promise you, if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to give up football time, it’s him,” said tight end Lee Smith, one of the head coaches. “…This is our first year, man. Those six hours could’ve gone a long way, but we wanted to make sure these kids have a great day and experience something they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”

Receiver Jordy Nelson said the teenage version of him would’ve been nervous interacting with NFL players. Richard said some were wide-eyed, and glued to instruction from their idols. Most enjoyed the experience, and seemed comfortable working with popular pros.

“These kids have been around social media for so long they always thought they’d meet the Raiders,” Bisaccia said. “It was a good interaction. It wasn’t about autographs and FaceTime and selfies. It was more about allowing our players to coach them, and maybe they could learn something they can use in the future. For our guys, it was all about the relationships they build with the young men. It was a good day.”

The Raiders hope it’ll become an annual event, one Gruden and staff felt comfortable taking on despite skipping an OTA.

“We’ve put in a few good months here in the meeting rooms and on the practice field,” Nelson said. “We have another week to go, but we’ve done well. This is a time for us to hang out and bond, and it’s fun to have that as well.”