We're just a few days out from the first group of players reporting to the Oakland Raiders Training Camp 2017 in Napa, Calif., which indicates that football season is just around the corner.
This will be Head Coach Jack Del Rio's third year with the Silver and Black, and while he's helped the team accomplish a lot thus far, he has big plans for this group of talented young men.
Quarterback Derek Carr and reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack talked about changing the team's culture when they were drafted four short years ago, and they have done just that, but as the 2017 campaign approaches, they're focused on winning a Super Bowl.
As the team prepares for the dawn of the new season, here are some of the headlines you should keep an eye on throughout training camp.
1. How the rookies look.
The new wave of rookies have arrived, and they're eager to experience their first NFL training camp. With a lot of talent on the roster, the first-year pros will be asked to come in and compete right away.
Transitioning from the college level to the big stage is a learning experience for any rookie, but fortunately they'll have a plethora of veterans to learn from during camp. Just last year, undrafted free agent running back Jalen Richard impressed the coaching staff in Napa, and earned his way onto the 53-man roster; it's not out of the ordinary for an undrafted player to make some noise.
Young guns like safety Obi Melifonwu and cornerback Gareon Conley have flashed some potential throughout rookie mini-camp and OTAs [Organized Team Activities], but it'll be a different story when they strap the pads on. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for who stands out in the early going.
2. How the new additions are meshing.
Aside from the players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Raiders made the initiative to add a fresh batch of talent during the offseason this year.
The team went out and acquired offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse, dynamic wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, versatile tight end Jared Cook, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, and quarterback EJ Manuel all in free agency; while also acquiring premier running back Marshawn Lynch via trade from the Seattle Seahawks.
While the Raiders initial core of offensive weapons remains intact, the addition of the new players only enhances an already high-powered offense. When the team eventually suits up in pads during camp, Carr will have a wide arsenal of new tools at his disposal.
Naturally, it'll take some time for the team to get on the same page, but watching the players take the field together will be worth observing.
**3. Who impresses at linebacker.
The Raiders currently have 12 linebackers on the roster, but Bruce Irvin at this point might be the only one who's carved out a defined role. In his first season with the Silver and Black a year ago, Irvin reached a career-high in tackles with 57, while also adding seven sacks, just one short of his personal best, as well as six forced fumbles.
With Mack and Irvin applying pressure from the outside, the team is looking for production in the middle, and there will be plenty of competition for those roles. The departure of Malcolm Smith to the San Francisco 49ers in free agency this offseason opens the door for another player to step in and fill his shoes.
Ben Heeney started two games at middle linebacker last year before dealing with injuries that limited him to four games. Second-year player Cory James started in five games in 2016, with 15 tackles coming in just one of those starts. The team will certainly hope that James takes the next step in his development, and what a better place to start than training camp?
The team also selected Wake Forest linebacker Marquel Lee in the fifth round (No. 168) of this year's draft, so with him in the fold there should be ample competition at the linebacker position. As we move through camp, that'll be a storyline I'm sure many people will be conscious of.
4. Who mans the right tackle spot?
For the most part, the offensive line is already figured out, with left tackle Donald Penn, guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson, and guard Gabe Jackson holding it down the trenches. At right tackle, the Raiders experienced a rotating door of sorts, with Menelik Watson – now on the Denver Broncos – Austin Howard, and Vadal Alexander splitting time at the position.
Now, Newhouse appears to be in the mix and will undoubtedly see some reps at right tackle. Offensive line coach Mike Tice helped turn the group into one of the top O-lines last season, and I'm anxious to see how he handles the competition on the right side.
5. How linebacker Shilique Calhoun utilizes his new physique.
The former Michigan State Spartan's rookie season probably didn't go the way he visualized it would, but showed glimpses of his versatility in 2016. Calhoun harbored injuries throughout the year, but was ultimately shut down with a knee injury that kept him out the final six games of the regular season.
As he enters his second season, No. 91 is noticeably bigger, after spending a lot of time in the weight room this offseason, packing on 20 pounds of muscle. Calhoun's hope is to command a bigger physical presence on the defensive line, and have a bigger contribution. Whether he decides to use his size and strength to bulldoze people, or mix it with his athleticism remains to be seen, but I'm excited to see the new and improved Calhoun.