Johnathan Abram spent one game in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system last year before suffering a season-ending injury, but Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers he looked like a five-year veteran.
In a 34-30 win, Abram led all defenders with 13 tackles and added one tackle for loss. After missing nearly all of last year with a shoulder injury, the former first-round pick looked healthy and fast on the grass today, pleasing his teammates and the coaching staff.
When Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock selected Abram in the first round last year, they did it with the intention of him maturing into one of the best safeties in the league and becoming a tone-setter for the Silver and Black.
"These guys missed the offseason program," Gruden said about Abram and others following the win. "They missed a lot of work last year, he's out there with live bullets against McCaffrey and a Teddy Bridgewater, and a pretty offensive team, but we have to play better on defense and John's a big part of that, and we expect him to make sure that happens."
On numerous occasions Sunday, Abram delivered a booming hit on Christian McCaffrey and other members of the Panthers. Often times, No. 24 wouldn't be anywhere in the vicinity of the play, but he'd come out of nowhere and make a key stop. The former Mississippi State Bulldog's ability to jolt opposing players with the sound of thunder and strike faster than lightning was something the Raiders desperately missed last season.
"John is a character, on and off the field, but if you just see the way he flies around — he had like, 14 tackles today or something crazy like that," Josh Jacobs said postgame. "If you just see the way that he flies around and the way he brings that juice to the defense, it's electric. I'll watch him and catch myself watching him like a fan, so I'm definitely happy to have him back."
For nearly 12 months, Abram watched from the sidelines eager to unleash his talent on the field, but he stayed patient, knowing he'd finally have his chance. The added time in the playbook allowed him to understand the intricacies of Guenther's scheme and resulted in excellent communication against the Panthers.
Even though NFL analysts are considering this Abram's "rookie year," the 23-year-old doesn't have a problem speaking up like a veteran. Following the game, he expressed his excitement to be back on the field, but he was all business when it came to evaluating his performance along with the defense as a whole.
"It felt great to be back out there with my guys," Abram said. "Today was a very sloppy performance on the defense's part. We have to go out and execute way more than we did. We gave up a few big plays and if you give up big plays in this league that's how you get beat. We were fortunate to do enough to come away with a 'W' today, but overall we did what we needed to do to get the win."
With the pieces added this offseason, the Raiders are looking to take a big step forward on defense, and as Gruden said, Abram is a big part of that. As long as he can stay healthy, the expectations surrounding him are sky high, especially after his 13-tackle afternoon.
View photos from the Raiders' Week 1 matchup against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.