Raiders.com Mailbag: Rookies To Watch, Position Battles To Keep An Eye On At Training Camp

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Raider Nation, it's been a while.

Even though it seems like the 2016 season just wrapped up at NRG Stadium in Houston, we're now less than a month away from the Silver and Black reporting to Napa for the start of Training Camp 2017.

With Mandatory Mini-Camp now in the books, it seemed like a good team to evaluate what's going on with the Oakland Raiders, so here's our most recent edition of the Raiders.com Mailbag.

From Jamal C: What does Todd Downing bring to our team as the Offensive Coordinator?

EP:First of all, his tight relationship with fourth-year Raiders quarterback Derek Carr can't be overstated. It's no secret that in 2017, the Raiders offense will go as No. 4 goes, and he and Downing obviously have a deep sense of trust between them. Both men have talked about their friendship, both on and off the field, and how their closeness really pays dividends when they talk football. In addition to his relationship with Carr, in the early goings of his tenure as Offensive Coordinator, Downing has been heralded for letting the players be themselves, and express how they feel. Players typically play their best when they're loose and confident, and Downing certainly seems to be an advocate for just that. One more thing that I think Downing is set to bring to the table in 2017, is that so far he's appeared to be very receptive to what the veteran players on his unit think. Granted, Downing won't have to reconstruct the wheel in 2017; last year the Silver and Black had one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, but the mere fact that the team's new Offensive Coordinator is willing to hear how his players think they can get even better this year is a good sign going forward.

From Michael P: Will we have an improved secondary this year?

EP:Michael, I think we will. During his final press conference of the year, Head Coach Jack Del Rio said that going forward, for the Silver and Black to have some sustained success, the secondary needed to be better. That meant less big plays, tighter coverage, and just making life in general more difficult for opposing pass catchers. Well, General Manager Reggie McKenzie added bigtime pieces to that secondary with his first two picks in this year's draft, selecting Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley and UCONN safety Obi Melifonwu respectively. Now, it's too early to assume just how much time on the field the pair of rookies will actually see, but it's become evident over the past two seasons that the position group as a whole has been infused with a plethora of talent. In addition to Conley and Melifonwu, the players that were on the roster last year also have another year of experience in Defensive Coordinator Ken Norton, Jr.' s system. Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith are now headed into their second seasons in Silver and Black, and that comfort with the scheme – and more importantly each other – will hopefully manifest itself in a positive way this year.

From Graham H: What does Derek Carr's contract extension mean for the team?

EP:In a word, security. Through the first three years of his career, Derek Carr has shown that not only is one of the best, young quarterbacks in the NFL, he might be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, period. He's improved year after year, and last season there was a convincing case to be made that "D.C." could have been the league MVP had it not been for his Week 16 injury. Long story short, Carr is a franchise quarterback, and at a time when finding that franchise-type player is becoming increasingly difficult, McKenzie and the organization wanted to make sure that Carr would be in Silver and Black for the foreseeable future. Along with defensive end Khalil Mack, Carr is one of the seminal faces of the franchise, and in order for him to remain that long-term, a new deal was in order. To make a long story short, Carr's extension means that the Raiders have secured the most-important position on the football field for the foreseeable future, so rest easy, Raider Nation, Carr will now be wearing the Silver and Black for a long time.

From Kyle W: What rookies should we be looking for going into training camp?

EP:Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu are going to be the two that likely top the list heading into training camp, and understandably so. They were the first two selections in this year's draft, and not just that, they also play positions where they could see playing time earlier than later. As excited as I am to see both those guys when the team reports to camp, and I'm really excited, I'm going to go off the beaten path a little bit for another guy I think you should keep an eye on, safety Shalom Luani. The Raiders selected the former Washington State Cougar in the seventh round (No. 221 overall) of the draft, and since he joined the Raiders, he's been lauded for his big-hitting ability. Granted the team hasn't once put the pads on since Luani came to town, but throughout Rookie Mini-Camp and the Offseason Workout Program, the stocky safety has shown a nose for the football. We'll obviously get a much better read for what Luani can bring to the table in a little over a month, but he's one rookie in particular that I'm looking forward to watching at training camp.

**From Bo C: What's one position battle you're looking forward to watching at camp this year?

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EP:Great question. While the battle for right tackle is sure to be a good one that will feature the likes of Austin Howard, Vadal Alexander and newcomer Marshall Newhouse, I'm really looking to seeing Connor Cook and EJ Manuel go toe-to-toe for the right to be the second quarterback on the depth chart. While Carr is the unquestioned starter for 2017, and now for the future, at this juncture, we're not quite sure who will back him up. After spending the entire 2016 season with the Silver and Black – and starting the Raiders Wild Card matchup against the Houston Texans – Cook has a year of experience in the system, but adding Manuel to the mix will no doubt force him to push himself to retain the No. 2 job. As far as Manuel is concerned, he comes to the Raiders after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Buffalo Bills, where he appeared in 28 games, making 17 starts, spending the 2014 season with Downing as his quarterbacks coach. Head Coach Del Rio noted throughout the Offseason Workout Program just how close the competition between the pair was, so it should be fun to see them battle it out at training camp. While backup quarterback might not be the flashiest position, we saw firsthand last year how important it is to have depth at every position on the roster.

From Jeremiah J: When does training camp start?

EP:Once again, the Raiders will pack their bags and head to Napa for Training Camp 2017; rookies report July 24, and veterans report a few days later on July 28… #WhatOffseason.

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