Optimism, Expectations High Surrounding Raiders Rookie Class

Scott Bair

NAPA – Jon Gruden has sweet accommodations at the Napa Valley Marriott. If they model last year, his room comes customized with a multi-screen setup to watch practice tape, break down film, plan practices, and maybe create new plays.

He still might have to move, and stay under a pseudonym.

Why? That Johnathan Abram kid just won't leave him alone.

"You can't get rid of the guy," Gruden said in a Friday press conference that kicked off Raiders training camp. "He's calling me. He's texting me. I'm going to change rooms, so he can't find me."

That was said with tongue in cheek to prove a larger point. The first-round safety is a grinder, someone clearly comfortable competing at this level.

Abram has swagger and drive Gruden appreciates, something made clear during Thursday's rookies-only practice.

"He was so frustrated at a walk through yesterday, that he couldn't hit people," general manager Mike Mayock said. "Jon's calling him out, and Abram is looking back at Coach like, ‘Just let me go.' It's fun to watch. It really is."

Abram is itching to make an impact. He'll get the opportunity this season, along with several other members of what Gruden and Mayock consider a foundational rookie class.

First-round defensive end Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs and Abram are all expected to start and play heavy snaps. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen and receiver Hunter Renfrow could carve out significant roles. Gruden also praised tight end Foster Moreau on Friday, suggesting the LSU product has a shot to be a regular offensive player.

None of those spots will be given. Earning them in training camp will be hard but crucial to the team's short-term and long-term success. The Raiders have gone younger in Gruden's second season, finally rebuilding after last year's teardown. Such action brought incredible roster turnover, aimed at immediate improvements while setting up sustainable, long-term growth.

This rookie class must produce quickly to reach both objectives.

The Raiders are counting on it, and came away from early portions of training camp confident they'll get it.

"Jon and I have had an awful lot of conversations about these kids and the passion for the game and setting the foundation and all of that," Mayock said. "When you see the fact that they not only show up in shape, but they only show up and they have their heads in the books, man. When Jon starts going quads empty on the first day and the defensive backs know what the proper adjustment is, it's pretty cool. That's what we're juiced about."

There's a lot left to show. The rookies haven't even put on pads yet, or played an NFL down. Mayock and Gruden tempered their enthusiasm with those facts, but there's optimism talking to Raiders brass at the Napa Valley Marriott that this could be a special rookie class.

"We haven't put pads on and the vets (haven't practiced), but they have been as advertised as far as work ethic, mental agility and passion for the game of football," Mayock said. "I think Jon and I have both really, really been pleased so far with that aspect of it.

Expecting the world from rookies often results in disappointment. Even the NFL's best often struggle at the outset, or ramp up production as years go by. Future returns might be higher, but the Raiders would struggle to survive 2019 if Ferrell, Abram and Jacobs especially give them next to nothing.

The Raiders needed immediate help at several positions, and smartly choose not to Band-Aid issues with aging veterans on one-year contracts like they did last year.

They paid a bunch to a few prominent free agents signed long enough to help usher in a new era and support this draft class and crucial ones in coming years.

Rookies will make mistakes, and the Raiders are willing to be patient if their draft picks make them while showing Abram's mix of initiative and talent.

"He's an old-school, throwback ball player," Gruden said. "He has to continue to refine his game and learn the NFL game. We're confident in him."

Those last two sentences are true of Ferrell and Jacobs and Mullen and several other Raiders rookies, a positive sign for a franchise trying to enter a golden era. Gruden's words also acknowledge a work in progress, with better likely to come later. Given the current state of the roster, the Raiders need a little something right now.

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