Raiders Offseason Program Observations: Antonio Brown Sets New Standard

The Raiders have a number of second-year players key to the 2019 season. That group includes the obvious guys like Maurice Hurst, Kolton Miller and Arden Key looking to follow up rookie seasons with something better.

There's another subset of second-year players created by the Raiders coaching staff, and it has nothing to do with professional time served.

Head coach Jon Gruden calls them second-year system players, who joined up last year when Gruden took over the Raiders franchise. That group is far bigger, and can help new guys assimilate into Gruden's offense and Paul Guenther's defense.

New-guy volume is high after yet another offseason with heavy roster turnover, as Gruden continues this radical Raiders reconstruction. Second-year scheme guys are particularly helpful during an offseason program when installation is vital, a luxury unavailable last year when everything was so new.

The Raiders did a good enough job absorbing and executing that Gruden, who regularly laments the dearth of practice time and player access, cut minicamp practices a day early for all and two days for veterans.

The Silver and Black won't meet again until July 26 in Napa, when the full squad reports for training camp. One thing is clear after watching select sessions of the offseason program: these Raiders are improved over a year ago.

"We're a better team on paper," Gruden said. "We're faster, we collected some really good players, but we got a lot to prove and time will tell."

He's right. Question marks remain, but here's a few things we learned over the offseason program during days open to the press:

AB never stops hustling

Gruden called receiver Antonio Brown the hardest worker in practice he'd ever seen well before the star receiver became his charge. Gruden saw Brown's legendary work ethic up close in Pittsburgh, watching workouts as Monday Night Football's color analyst.

He wasn't wrong. Brown has followed up on promises to set a new standard, practicing hard each day with highlight reel plays and excellent route running, regularly beating even the best Raiders cornerbacks.

Brown would come back to the pack after big catches, and coach the DBs on how best to prevent what had just happened. He speaks to them with expertise, considering he studies his own teammates before practicing against them.

"He has seen a lot of different players and we know that this offseason he actually did a little bit of study on us and just getting ready for practice and stuff like that," cornerback Daryl Worley said. "He has definitely been able to give us feedback on where he feels as though we can improve, or what he felt is he sees that we covered it well."

Nobody can play or game plan for months, but Brown has worked to raise intensity even during the spring.

"He's a guy that plays at a high clip," Worley said. "If you were to watch him just catch a simple slant, he takes it all the way to the end zone. He wants to score each and every play, so he's definitely a high level competitor and we talked to him before practice started and everything and the one thing he wanted to say was that we all need to get better.

"Not only is he going to make us better by being one of the best receivers in the league, but we are also going to make him better because we are all different players at the end of the day."

Raiders prepping Jacobs for heavy workload

The Raiders have an experienced stable of running backs, but it's crystal clear a rookie will handle most of the workload. No. 24 overall pick Josh Jacobs is being prepped as a true feature back atop a depth chart that includes Doug Martin and Jalen Richard.

While the Raiders running game won't be truly tested even in practice until the pads come on, Jacobs can see little ways coaches are trying to prepare him for significant action.

"They just push me to finish every play, regardless of if I have the ball or not," Jacobs said. "Just to get that extra little conditioning in. I might take more reps for me mentally to be prepared, but also physically to be prepared. So, they're just pushing me every day to be the best that I can be."

Skill positions significantly upgraded

The Raiders invested heavily in the skill positions, where they were deficient a year ago. This group is faster, especially at receiver, and should be better running and passing the ball.

Brown and Jacobs are obvious highlights, but Tyrell Williams is a legitimate deep threat, and rookies Hunter Renfrow and Keelan Doss have gotten better.

It's tough to say Darren Waller's better than 30-plus veteran Jared Cook, but coaches are certainly excited about the young tight end's potential heading into a season where he could make a significant impact

Major question marks remain along defensive front

The Raiders have drafted six defensive linemen the last two years. Talent has been added in early rounds, middle and late, with plenty of hope for the future of a lackluster pass rush. Presently, however, these guys are going to have to prove they belong and produce steadily.

This young group will be counted on -- this year's No. 4 pick Clelin Ferrell and second-year end Arden Key, especially -- to play and produce right away without intimidating veterans to lead the way.

Joyner more slot corner than safety

Lamarcus Joyner has the ability and experience to play both safety and slot cornerback, but he had a primary focus during offseason program sessions open to the press.

He played slot cornerback almost exclusively in those practices, and a few Raiders said his focus will be on the inside.

That should leave Karl Joseph and first-round rookie Johnathan Abram as current presumptive starters at safety, with Erik Harris as a knowledgeable and capable reserve.

Vast knowledge in veteran LB corps, but...

The Raiders got older and wiser in the linebacker corps by adding Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall in free agency. They'll team up with Tahir Whitehead for what could be the season's starting trip, though strongside ‘backer Marquel Lee might have something to say about that.

Burfict has helped tremendously running Guenther's scheme after years working in it with the Bengals, though Marshall rarely saw the field in sessions open to the media. Both guys have long, successful resumes, but can they find old form despite recent injuries and advancing age?

[RELATED: Derek Carr ranked as Chris Simms' No. 18 overall QB]

The Raiders have tried to find veteran linebacker help before, with a trail of failed experiments to show for it. They need it to be different this time and avoid last season's situation that left Whitehead with unproven youth at that spot.

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