3 OTAs Takeaways Heading into Mini Camp

Khalil Mack Oakland Raiders

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack anchors a line that needs some help getting pressure on the QB.

The Oakland Raiders head into mandatory minicamp this week knowing a bit more about their team thanks to OTAs. But what did we learn from these non-contact drills?

The Raiders wrapped up OTAs last week in Alameda, showcasing the first practices where Jon Gruden could begin to implement his new offensive system. The pads aren’t on yet, but there was still plenty to learn from as the team got to know their new coach and his offense.

Takeaway #1: The Gruden Effect

Gruden has been away from coaching for 10 years, but he hasn’t been away from the game. Being an analyst on Monday Night Football provided Gruden with a unique opportunity to see how every coach in the NFL ran their teams. It’s been documented that there is a bit of the “Patriot Way” – a Bill Belichick influence – being used by Gruden as he makes his return to the sidelines.

otas Jon Gruden Derek Carr oakland raiders
Gruden’s getting buy-in from his players early in the process.

Gruden has an infectious personality. Players love to play for him. He won’t always pat you on the back and tell you “good job,” but he will always have your respect. From day one, the Raiders learned exactly what Gruden was all about. He runs a very complicated offensive system with a ton of verbiage. His first practice involved 30 audibles and 16 no huddle situations.

Bruce Irvin is one of the leaders on the Raiders defense. Right away he could see the different energy level Gruden brought to the team.

“He’s doing a hell of a job and I think guys have bought in and I think guys are ready to go in and bust their tail for him,” Irvin said of his new coach.

There was a lot of speculation on whether general manager Reggie McKenzie and Gruden could coexist inside the Raiders organization. We caught up with McKenzie in Las Vegas for the Gridiron Greats event, and he was nothing but smiles when we asked him how working with Gruden was going.

“It’s great, man. He loves the game,” McKenzie said. “He’s such a football guy and you love to work with a guy like that.”

It won’t always be fun and games with “Chucky,” but the team has bought into the hard-nosed style he brings to the Raiders. There’s a different tone around practices now. It’s a tone that suggests it’s time to get to work. It’s time get serious about winning football games. No more playlists at practice. No more dropping passes. No more losing. Gruden brings a winning attitude with him. It’s an attitude the Raiders haven’t seen much of since the last time he was in charge.

Takeaway #2: Khalil Mack “Drama”

Khalil Mack was a no-show for all of OTAs. As I just mentioned, there’s a new staff in Oakland and with that comes a new system. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was asked about Mack’s absence.

“He’s gonna have a lot of catching up to do,” Guenther said.

There are some in the media that took Guenther’s comment to be negative towards Mack. In reality, it’s just the matter of fact truth. Mack is now behind in terms of learning the new system. While OTAs are an important step in the learning process for new players and coaches, they are still voluntary. Mack hasn’t missed anything that will impede his ability to be a top defender in the NFL this season.

The big question then, is when will Mack be on the field? Derek Carr had a similar situation last offseason. His deal wasn’t finalized till the last week of June. Expect Mack to have his new long-term contract ready to before the start of training camp. Until camp starts, there really isn’t any reason to worry about Mack not being on the field. He’s a smart player with all the talent in the world and will have no problem picking up Guenther’s system in time for week one.

Takeaway #3: Lots of New Faces

The first thing you notice looking at the Raiders roster is the number of new names on it. From rookies like Maurice Hurst to veterans like Derrick Johnson, Gruden and McKenzie have done a lot to reshape the look of the team.

Gruden has talked about competition since day one. No one on this team will be handed a job. One of the most obvious examples of that is in the Raiders secondary. Gone are names like Amerson and Smith, and in their place are names like Hall and Melvin. Last season’s first-round draft pick Gareon Conely can also be put on that list. Even though he was on the roster last season, he spent most of the year injured and never really saw the field.

otas MC Hammer Oakland Raiders
Even MC Hammer dropped in on the Raiders during OTAs.

The Raiders defense was a mess last season. It wasn’t until late November that the Raiders recorded their first interception, and it wasn’t even a defensive back that got it. It was linebacker NaVarro Bowman – added to the team in mid-October.

The secondary needed an upgrade in the worst way. Gruden took a ton of criticism for bringing in older veterans. Leon Hall is 33 , and Rashaan Melvin is 28. Not exactly young in terms of football age, especially at the cornerback position, but Gruden wants guys that can play football. Age doesn’t matter. He brought in Rod Woodson the last time he was in Oakland and Woodson was almost 40.

They also drafted a young corner in Nick Nelson. While he hasn’t seen the field yet because of an offseason injury, he will be expected to push the rest of that secondary for reps. Even though he was picked in the 4th round of the 2018 draft, he is a 1st round talent and should be able to compete for a starters position.

All in all OTA’s are nothing more than glorified practices. But they do have some value, especially when you have so many new faces on both the coaching staff and the roster. Gruden looks like he hasn’t lost a step since leaving the sidelines 10 years ago. Competition is fierce among the rookies and veterans.

And Khalil Mack is coming…soon.

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