ALAMEDA – The Raiders are in the midst of a defensive youth movement. They have three rookie starters and three more playing significant snaps. Second-year pros occupy a starting spot and two more in the heavy rotation.
That's a large volume, even on a struggling team. It also provides sharp contrast to this offseason's expectations, when prominent veterans and experienced stars were supposed to highlight Paul Guenther's first Raiders defense.
Khalil Mack was traded, Bruce Irvin was waived and several other veteran additions proved ineffective, prompting the Raiders to go young.
Paul Guenther's in a strange spot, trying to get the best from a generally undermanned unit while making sure his young defenders make steady progress. They have a real shot to part of this team's long-term future if they develop steadily, which is why Guenther's always looking out for coachable moments.
"Every single second. Every single play in a game. Every single play in practice. Meetings and walk throughs. All of those things are opportunities," Guenther said Thursday. "It's very different having a veteran team that's been together a long time, where you can kind of say, ‘Hey, they got this,' whereas every little inch along the way you got to make sure they are on top of the details and understand why we are making the calls and what they are supposed to do. Every minute of the day is like that for us right now."
Guenther's well known as a good teacher. That was clear in training camp, when players lauded his ability to teach a new scheme and relate to each position group.
His primary objective now is on winning the next game but, given how many young bucks he has in the rotation, there's a focus on making sure they learn from everything that happens, good or bad, in this season.
Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has shown great polish, and season-year pro Gareon Conley's coming into his own. Edge rusher Arden Key and defensive lineman P.J. Hall have promise but need seasoning. Cornerback Nick Nelson's finally 100-percent healthy the past month and can start learning. Guenther's trying to figure if Jason Canbinda, Nick Morrow and Maquel Lee can help the linebacker corps long-term.
The players above have improved to this stage, but there's plenty of work left to do.
"I've got youth everywhere, from linebacker and defensive line, so hopefully they all continue to develop," Guenther said. "Like I said, the more playing time they are getting right now, it's only going to bode well for them down the season. Any situation they are in; third downs, red zone, short yardage goal line, one minute. All those things when they are in a game and it's live and its real football, it's going to pay dividends down the road."