Oakland Raiders General manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jack Del Rio participated in a conference call with Season Ticket Members moderated by three-time Pro Bowler and Raiders Radio sideline reporter Lincoln Kennedy Tuesday evening.
The pair covered numerous topics and fielded approximately two dozen questions during the roughly 60-minute session. Here are some of the highlights:
On which rookies have impressed the most during OTAs… **
Head Coach Jack Del Rio: I would say really the entire rookie class. We feel really good about what we're seeing right now. We finished a rookie mini-camp, we've been going for two and a half weeks now with the rookies and the veterans all here, the whole team here working, everybody's here working hard. Man, to pick one guy out I'd just tell you, I think the rookie class, they really have been thus far the guys we thought we were getting which is a good thing.
On media hype about the team and keeping the team from getting overconfident…
Del Rio: I don't think there's any problem with people recognizing the work that you're doing and I think the excitement really stems from that. Last year we took strides, we took steps forward as a team and as an organization in establishing the very competitive nature, the style of play, a physicality and we just want to build on that. We feel like we are building on that. We are excited about the work we're putting in right now. For me, I'm more concerned and focused on the work and the preparation, the commitment level, the energy the guys are putting forth, and I'm talking about all of us together. That's what's exciting. I think people can feel that. I think it's real. So we don't hide from that. We've raised the bar here. We have high expectations. I'm a firm believer you raise your level of play, you go up to meet expectations, if set low expectations you're playing it safe and not giving yourself a chance to grow.
On the size of the offensive line and playing smash-mouth football…**
Del Rio: I think one of the things both Reggie and I have an affection for are big, physical men in the trenches. We know it all starts right there up front. We really feel like with the addition of Kelechi [Osemele], the strength of our football team is in the trenches. We do want to be a team that surges in the run game and controls the line of scrimmage. Whether teams know we want to run or not that we get to a point where we feel like we can impose our will on them and be physical and move the ball. In doing that, they should have to load the box to stop it, and then Derek will have opportunities to look outside to our good wide receivers and get some great on-on-one match-ups.
On losing Charles Woodson's leadership and who will step up as leaders…
General Manager Reggie McKenzie: Leadership plays a huge role in what we're trying to do here. The coaches are putting it on the players to really help lead this team. We've got a lot of young, good leaders, Khalil Mack being one on the defensive side, we brought in Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, we got Reggie Nelson, veteran guys like that, guys like Malcolm Smith that's been in the system at that linebacker position. We've got a good group right now, we don't have that old veteran like a Charles Woodson, those kinds of guys are once-in-a-lifetime type guys, we don't have that replaced, but we've got a lot of guys who can tote the leadership role especially on that side of the ball. I feel like on offense, we've got that offensive line with a whole lot of guys who've played, from the center position and Rodney Hudson, to the left tackle in Penn, we've got Derek Carr who's a great young leader, we got Crabtree out there on the edge, we've got leadership. The guys know how to lead, they know how to work, and the coaches are doing a great job letting them do their thing and get this team to grow.
On the running back situation and quarterback position…**
McKenzie: Let me tell you, with our quarterback situation for one, we feel really good about our starter, we've had [Matt] McGloin in here for three years now and he's proven that he can be a backup, but we had a chance to get this rookie, Connor Cook, in here and we're really excited to have him. We feel like we have three quarterbacks who can go out here and play the game. We're not looking at this point to upgrade, we feel like we're pretty strong at that position. Our running back positon, with Latavius [Murray], we also added a fifth round draft pick, DeAndre Washington, we really feel good about what he's going to bring to the table along with the backup we have in Taiwan Jones. We have a pretty solid group back there, young, but we feel good about where we are at this point.
On the middle linebacker position and linebacker depth…
McKenzie: Our fifth round pick from last year, [Ben] Heeney, we feel like he's a really good football year. This will be his first year going into the season as the starter, as a young player it remains to be seen what he can do during the course of an entire season. We saw enough last year, and we see a whole lot this year during this offseason that Heeney is going to be a really good football player. Now, what we have backing up the middle linebacker spot, we're going to let it all play out during this offseason and preseason. We feel like we've got a pretty solid group of young players and we're just going to have to see where the cream rises so to speak, but we feel good about Ben in the middle.
Del Rio**: We drafted a kid named Cory James out of Colorado State and he's also training at middle linebacker, we've got a guy named Korey Toomer who was with us late last year, John Lotulelei, these guys are getting a chance to develop and to grow in our system. The one thing I'll say about our group is that they are all fast. We have speed at linebacker, we have speed on the field and you're going to notice that our team speed overall has been greatly increased. I think you'll see it, I think you'll recognize it when we start playing. The team speed we've assembled here and the group that we have it plays fast, it's an aggressive group, with the pass rushers we have and the ability to track down running backs and run 'em down, including guys like Ben Heeney. He showed that when he got his opportunity last year, he made the most of it and did a nice job. One thing when you're watching our group, you'll see the speed.
On building the team...
McKenzie: What we've done here is definitely added a lot pieces, it's not complete until we hold up that trophy, until we win the division, get in the playoffs, and our quest for that trophy. When we get there, it will be complete. But we do feel really good about where we're headed and this team is starting to come together and we're looking forward to this season coming up.
On rookie safety Karl Joseph fitting in and starting right away…**
McKenzie: We brought Karl Joseph in here to be a player, he's doing his rehab right now, we're looking forward to seeing him the fall during training camp. As far as being a Day One starter, just like all the players, he's going to have to earn that right when they on the practice field. Hopefully we'll see that in the preseason. We like Karl Joseph very much, that's why we drafted him, and we feel very good about the future of the Raiders secondary with him back there.
On stopping opposing tight ends and Derek Carr's quarterback play in the 4th quarter…
Del Rio: Speed at linebacker, ability at safety, those things go hand-in-hand with slowing down an opponent's tight end. We feel good about the work we're putting in right now, so we'll get to see this fall. You tell me next year on this call what you think about the progress we made in that area. As far as Derek Carr, this is a young man who just finished his second year in the league, he's done outstanding things over the first two years of his career. He's not perfect, we have work to do, but he's got a very promising future, a very bright future and we feel like he came up big in games. You can talk about the bad moments or you can also look at the good moments, and he had more good moments than bad moments. We feel going forward we'll build on that. It's not perfect, it never is, one thing we're doing is we're hard at work improving our football team, developing and preparing for this upcoming season.
Importance of coaching staff and roster continuity…
Del Rio: Obviously being able to bring your staff back intact is a good thing, the continuity, the quarterback having the same offensive coordinator, having the same quarterback coach, having some of the plays he's running where he's had hundreds and thousands of snaps, the efficiency in those plays is so much greater when they're second nature, when you've had so many turns at it that it becomes natural for you. Those are things we're working on. To have that staff intact and returning and the core of our football team returning, that's one of the reasons you hear people so excited about where we're going and what we're doing. You have that continuity and you have that core of young players and we're going to get better. That's just a fact.
On the progress of the defensive line…
Del Rio: The d-line is doing well. We've got some new additions in Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun, even an undrafted or two that you may hear about as we get going here in training camp. Guys who are working hard right now. Justin Ellis, Jelly, is having a nice spring, working his butt off, doing a nice job. We've got a couple guys that are mending up right now. We have a good group, we're pretty powerful up front, Khalil Mack was moved to outside backer/defensive end, he's part of the force, and Bruce Irvin. We've got speed, we've got size, we've got strength, we've got a pretty active group in there, we're looking forward to it. A lot of the reason we're excited about what we've done is we know we've assembled some big, strong men in the trenches. We know it starts up front. That's really the core of everything we're doing is big, physical men that dictate on their terms how we're going to play the game. That gives you a chance as a football team to be very successful in the National Football League.