Lamarcus Joyner

Johnathan Abram keeping ears, eyes open while learning Raiders way

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AP

Johnathan Abram keeping ears, eyes open while learning Raiders way

Johnathan Abram spent his first Raiders offseason program trying to listen, absorb and process as much as humanly possible. Picking up a somewhat complex defensive scheme would help him hit the ground running when training camp begins this summer.

The first-round safety is active in meetings, vocal in practices and was confident helping run the first unit in later OTAs and minicamp. All that has helped him put a solid foot forward.

“What I’m really impressed by is just how he has been able to get this defense down,” fellow safety Karl Joseph said. “For a young guy to come in and be able to understand all the stuff and rules in this defense, that’s pretty impressive. He’s been doing a great job.”

Abram will be the first to admit he hasn’t been perfect in this offseason. That’s odd coming from someone exuding confidence and a proportionate amount of swagger, but the Mississippi State alum is not afraid to be wrong. That, in itself, is an asset.

“I have a lot to learn,” Abram said. “I’m more so worried about what to expect from offenses. I do a very great job of going home, watching film, studying, I take a lot of mental reps. I put myself out there in meetings, making calls and if I’m wrong, then I’m wrong and coach will correct me as we go through it.”

Abram also is aware of a real possibility he’ll start right away. That’s no easy task for a rookie, even someone drafted as high as No. 27 overall. The Raiders have Erik Harris waiting in the wings, and Lamarcus Joyner can rotate in at safety after focusing on slot cornerback during the offseason program.

Abram has listened closely to Joyner, a player he studied in college and loves playing with as a professional even if they haven’t been next to each other at safety. He hangs on Joyner’s words in practice and meetings, and even pays attention to what the veteran says in public.

“Lamarcus can pretty much do it all,” Abram said. “He does a great job mentoring me, making sure I keep my feet where I am. I heard him say that once in the press conference over here and that’s the one thing I have been focusing on – just being where I’m at every single day and not looking so far ahead.”

The offseason program and the extra week of rookie orientation now are over, meaning players are free to relax until training camp starts for rookies first and then the full squad in late July.

[RELATED: On right life path, Raiders' Waller ready for breakout year]

Abram doesn’t plan on taking much time off, despite spending most of the offseason preparing for the NFL draft.

“I’m not nearly where I need to be, so I want to make sure I can try and get as close as I can going into training camp and be in the best shape possible,” Abram said. “Just making sure I’m super crisp with the playbook. That’s about it, just training.”

Raiders offseason program observations: Antonio Brown sets new standard

Raiders offseason program observations: Antonio Brown sets new standard

The Raiders have a number of second-year players key to the 2019 season. That group includes the obvious guys like Maurice Hurst, Kolton Miller and Arden Key looking to follow up rookie seasons with something better.

There’s another subset of second-year players created by the Raiders coaching staff, and it has nothing to do with professional time served.

Head coach Jon Gruden calls them second-year system players, who joined up last year when Gruden took over the Raiders franchise. That group is far bigger, and can help new guys assimilate into Gruden’s offense and Paul Guenther’s defense.

New-guy volume is high after yet another offseason with heavy roster turnover, as Gruden continues this radical Raiders reconstruction. Second-year scheme guys are particularly helpful during an offseason program when installation is vital, a luxury unavailable last year when everything was so new.

The Raiders did a good enough job absorbing and executing that Gruden, who regularly laments the dearth of practice time and player access, cut minicamp practices a day early for all and two days for veterans.

The Silver and Black won’t meet again until July 26 in Napa, when the full squad reports for training camp. One thing is clear after watching select sessions of the offseason program: these Raiders are improved over a year ago.

“We’re a better team on paper,” Gruden said. “We’re faster, we collected some really good players, but we got a lot to prove and time will tell.”

He’s right. Question marks remain, but here’s a few things we learned over the offseason program during days open to the press:

AB never stops hustling

Gruden called receiver Antonio Brown the hardest worker in practice he’d ever seen well before the star receiver became his charge. Gruden saw Brown’s legendary work ethic up close in Pittsburgh, watching workouts as Monday Night Football’s color analyst.

He wasn’t wrong. Brown has followed up on promises to set a new standard, practicing hard each day with highlight reel plays and excellent route running, regularly beating even the best Raiders cornerbacks.

Brown would come back to the pack after big catches, and coach the DBs on how best to prevent what had just happened. He speaks to them with expertise, considering he studies his own teammates before practicing against them.

“He has seen a lot of different players and we know that this offseason he actually did a little bit of study on us and just getting ready for practice and stuff like that,” cornerback Daryl Worley said. “He has definitely been able to give us feedback on where he feels as though we can improve, or what he felt is he sees that we covered it well.”

Nobody can play or game plan for months, but Brown has worked to raise intensity even during the spring.

“He’s a guy that plays at a high clip,” Worley said. “If you were to watch him just catch a simple slant, he takes it all the way to the end zone. He wants to score each and every play, so he’s definitely a high level competitor and we talked to him before practice started and everything and the one thing he wanted to say was that we all need to get better.

"Not only is he going to make us better by being one of the best receivers in the league, but we are also going to make him better because we are all different players at the end of the day.”

Raiders prepping Jacobs for heavy workload

The Raiders have an experienced stable of running backs, but it’s crystal clear a rookie will handle most of the workload. No. 24 overall pick Josh Jacobs is being prepped as a true feature back atop a depth chart that includes Doug Martin and Jalen Richard.

While the Raiders running game won’t be truly tested even in practice until the pads come on, Jacobs can see little ways coaches are trying to prepare him for significant action.

“They just push me to finish every play, regardless of if I have the ball or not,” Jacobs said. “Just to get that extra little conditioning in. I might take more reps for me mentally to be prepared, but also physically to be prepared. So, they’re just pushing me every day to be the best that I can be.”

Skill positions significantly upgraded

The Raiders invested heavily in the skill positions, where they were deficient a year ago. This group is faster, especially at receiver, and should be better running and passing the ball.

Brown and Jacobs are obvious highlights, but Tyrell Williams is a legitimate deep threat, and rookies Hunter Renfrow and Keelan Doss have gotten better.

It’s tough to say Darren Waller’s better than 30-plus veteran Jared Cook, but coaches are certainly excited about the young tight end’s potential heading into a season where he could make a significant impact

Major question marks remain along defensive front

The Raiders have drafted six defensive linemen the last two years. Talent has been added in early rounds, middle and late, with plenty of hope for the future of a lackluster pass rush. Presently, however, these guys are going to have to prove they belong and produce steadily.

This young group will be counted on -- this year’s No. 4 pick Clelin Ferrell and second-year end Arden Key, especially -- to play and produce right away without intimidating veterans to lead the way.

Joyner more slot corner than safety

Lamarcus Joyner has the ability and experience to play both safety and slot cornerback, but he had a primary focus during offseason program sessions open to the press.

He played slot cornerback almost exclusively in those practices, and a few Raiders said his focus will be on the inside.

That should leave Karl Joseph and first-round rookie Johnathan Abram as current presumptive starters at safety, with Erik Harris as a knowledgeable and capable reserve.

Vast knowledge in veteran LB corps, but...

The Raiders got older and wiser in the linebacker corps by adding Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall in free agency. They’ll team up with Tahir Whitehead for what could be the season’s starting trip, though strongside ‘backer Marquel Lee might have something to say about that.

Burfict has helped tremendously running Guenther’s scheme after years working in it with the Bengals, though Marshall rarely saw the field in sessions open to the media. Both guys have long, successful resumes, but can they find old form despite recent injuries and advancing age?

[RELATED: Derek Carr ranked as Chris Simms' No. 18 overall QB]

The Raiders have tried to find veteran linebacker help before, with a trail of failed experiments to show for it. They need it to be different this time and avoid last season’s situation that left Whitehead with unproven youth at that spot.

Lamarcus Joyner glad to mentor Raiders rookie safety Johnathan Abram

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USATSI

Lamarcus Joyner glad to mentor Raiders rookie safety Johnathan Abram

Johnathan Abram used social media to thank a former college coach. Then-University of Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt used Lamarcus Joyner’s game film as an example of how to play safety the right way, film study that stuck with Abram throughout a college career that wrapped at Mississippi State.

As luck would have it, Abram’s no longer watching Joyner from afar. Now, he’s playing with him in the Raiders' secondary.

Abram shared the surreal nature of the experience on Twitter last week.

The Raiders hope that pair plays well together for the foreseeable future. They invested heavily in both. Joyner got a four-year, $42 million deal with $16 million guaranteed, and Abram was made the No. 27 overall selection and given the four-year deal with a fifth-year option that comes with first-round status.

Joyner will move around quite a bit from free safety to slot cornerback, though he and Abram could well spend time together playing safety in Oakland's base defense.

That would be an ideal scenario for Abram. So is having Joyner in the meeting room as a mentor, a role the veteran relishes.

“It’s been a great relationship off the field knowing that I’ve been trusted with big responsibility with great guys like that,” Joyner said last week. “Like I told him and [second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen], they’re going to be greater players than me someday. So, to be able to have that honor and privilege to guide them and them trust me with that, that’s going to transition to a good work and off-the-field relationship.”

Abram has made a solid first impression since joining the Raiders' offseason program a few weeks back.

“He’s an alpha,” Joyner said. “He just has to slow it down; he’s ready to go. He’s been an alpha all of his life and I told him that you just have to think, keep your feet on the ground and let things come to him.”

Joyner sees a bit of himself in Abram’s rookie exuberance, creating a belief the young guy will settle in just fine.

“I remember being that way, which is why I know – with experience – just relax and your time will come,” Joyner said. “People know [about] your great abilities and your potential.”

[RELATED: Former foes AB, Burfict showing unity with Raiders]

The Raiders will count on Abram early, even with Erik Harris and Karl Joseph already in the mix, with Joyner switching positions in sub packages.

“My teammates have been very supportive trying to catch me in,” Joyner said. “I like the culture that [head coach Jon] Gruden is creating around here, it’s family oriented. It’s been a brotherhood and nothing but love since I have been here. It makes me comfortable at that position.”