Following the Oakland Raiders first full-squad practice of training camp, Head Coach Jon Gruden acknowledged yet again that he and his staff have a lot to prove in 2018, but after a challenging 2017 campaign, so does the Silver and Black's defense.
Let's be clear from the top; each year is its own animal, and with a new defensive coordinator, and no shortage of new faces on the defense, the 2018 iteration of the Raiders defense is already drastically different than it was just a year ago.
Nevertheless, after finishing 23rd in total defense in 2017, Gruden and the Raiders will be looking for a much better product this year, and while it was just one day, Bruce Irvin and Co., certainly delivered on the first day of training camp.
From batted balls, to interceptions, and the application of constant pressure, Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther's unit definitely put their best foot forward on Day 1.
"I like our defense," said Gruden after practice. "I like what we're doing on defense. Our defensive coordinator is really good. He creates a lot of problems. Bruce Irvin is playing his natural position on an every-down basis and I think he's a heck of a player. We've improved our inside pass rush. We've added a veteran presence. Some people don't like it, but I like Derrick Johnson, I like Marcus Gilchrist, I like guys that know what the heck is going on. Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, Emmanuel Lamur, they know this defense as well as Guenther. They're a handful and they're going to be a problem for us for the next few weeks."
As Gruden alluded, the Raiders' defense – much like the team in general – was completely retooled this offseason, and part of that restructuring included a plethora of veteran players joining the Silver and Black.
Gruden did mention that this influx of veterans wasn't to the "liking" of some folks around the league, but he and General Manager Reggie McKenzie feel good about the roster they've assembled, as well as the positive influence these veterans will provide the younger players on the team.
"He brings veterans in for a reason; we have experience," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "We've played football. We've been around. It's not our first rodeo, so you definitely have to have that mix of veteran guys along with the young guys, because at the end of the day, I think that experience in itself, it goes a long way, and when you have guys that have been there, that's played a lot of football, it definitely helps the team."
Now, it's not uncommon for the defense to have the edge over the offense in the early goings of camp, and Derek Carr and the offense will certainly have their days as top dog too, but the Raiders starting quarterback knows that with Paul Guenther at the helm, nothing will come easy this year.
"Against this guy [Guenther], he doesn't give up anything for free," Carr said. "You have to earn everything and just the mental side of things for me and Coach Gruden to go against him and try to figure him out, try to gut him and try to give him a bad night of sleep, make his meal taste a little worse at lunch, that's what we're trying to do every day. I just love that mentality. Coach Gruden is on me all the time instilling that, 'I want to kick Coach Guenther's butt every day.' I think he wants to embarrass us as well. That little rivalry, that little work is the same. But you'll see us all three at dinner together – we're a team – but it definitely helps us come the season. Ask any quarterback in the NFL, Coach Guenther is one of the best in the NFL and it's not even close. He gives you the most problems, he presents the most challenges, he makes you think more than anybody. He's one of the best and I'm glad he's here."
P.J. Hall, Donald Penn, and Eddie Vanderdoes remain on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list, with Coach Gruden saying after practice that Hall is dealing with a pectoral strain.
Exclusive photos from the Raiders first practice of 2018 Training Camp at The Oakland Raiders Napa Valley Training Complex in Napa, California.
-Following practice, the Raiders placed Khalil Mack and Vadal Alexander on the Reserve/Did Not Report list. Neither player counts towards the team's 90-man roster.
-The day indeed belonged to the defense, and if you had to pick one player who shined the brightest, it would have to be linebacker Bruce Irvin. In addition to securing an interception that he eventually returned for a touchdown, he also forced a fumble as well; talk about a nice start to camp for No. 51.
-We've praised the defense a lot today, and for good reason, but let's not forget about the Raiders' offensive line. There might not be a better interior line in all of football than the trio of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson, and Friday afternoon all three enjoyed a strong start to camp.
It's always amazing to me just how strong and nimble those three guys are, and watching them play football really is a treat.
-Let me just say this, everything Amari Cooper does on the football field looks easy. The man is an incredibly fluid route runner, and when he catches the ball it looks about as natural as can be. "Coop" was as expected Friday afternoon, and I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot from him in 2018.
-Another thing I noticed today was just how vocal this defense is. Whether it's Emmanuel Lamur, Derrick Johnson or one of the guys in the secondary, Paul Guenther's group talks on the field, and they talk a lot.
"He gives me a hard time a lot. I love him. I love being around him. If you get to know him, you understand what I'm talking about. He's a little misunderstood to some people but he's a football player. A lot of people consider that cliché but he's all football. He loves it." – Head Coach Jon Gruden discussing his relationship with Marshawn Lynch.
The Lighter Side:
I'm pretty sure the Raiders' training camp is the only one in the league that plays the Thizzle Dance during practice, and that's pretty cool if you ask me.
The Silver and Black are back on the practice field tomorrow at Memorial Stadium in Napa, and then Sunday is the first padded practice of Training Camp 2018.