Wednesday, July 20, 2022 | 2 a.m.
The wait is over; the NFL season is here.
Las Vegas gets to do the honors of ringing it in this year with the Raiders becoming the first of the league’s 32 franchises to report to training camp in full this morning. The Raiders get the early jump — most franchises don’t report until next Tuesday — both because they’re breaking in a new staff led by coach Josh McDaniels and they’re included in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 4 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There’s no shortage of work to be done at the team’s Henderson headquarters, with McDaniels installing his own new offense with help from new offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi and new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham doing the same on defense. New faces are all over the field, too, as first-time general manager Dave Zielger overhauled many position groups which look drastically different from the ones that led the Raiders to the playoffs a season ago.
But there’s scant time for an adjustment period. The Raiders aren’t rebuilding; in fact, the franchise is arguably carrying higher expectations into the season than it has at any point of the last two decades.
“I’m really excited with Josh and Dave coming in and the football organization,” team owner Mark Davis said to a group of reporters last Friday. “Each time I do this, I feel like I’ve said we’ve got stability, but I do believe we’ve got stability on the football side right now.”
Little is nailed down as far as the actual roster, however, as it must be trimmed for 90 to 53 players over the next month. Playing time is up for grabs at several spots, and that’s just a starting point for training camp intrigue.
There’s plenty to monitor as the Raiders get ready for the start of the regular season — they open Sept. 11 on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers — but here are five of the biggest things to watch at training camp.
Modern-day NFL training camps have a 1A and 1B in terms of their most important objectives — put the correct schemes in place and stay as healthy as possible.
A team or two per year seem to be derailed from contention before their seasons even begin with a slew of injuries. The Raiders weren’t ravaged quite that badly last season, but they didn’t come out unscathed either.
Among the 2021 training camp injuries were the seasonlong loss of three starters in left guard Richie Incognito, right guard Denzelle Good and middle linebacker Nicholas Morrow. It was also the first glimpse at nagging issues that would sideline Pro Bowl skill players Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs for stretches of the regular season.
And this was with the former coaching staff going to extraordinary lengths to keep everyone fresh by load-managing practice work and rarely playing starters in preseason games. McDaniels will likely do the same, though it’s tough to say definitively with 12 years having passed since the last time he was a head coach, with the Denver Broncos. But he’s spent the last decade with the New England Patriots, a franchise that tends not to push its best players too hard during the preseason.
That’s the direction most of the NFL is heading, and it makes sense. Especially for a team with as much veteran talent in place as the Raiders, it’s not worth taking unnecessary risks with important players.
The team begins training camp with three potential starters — cornerback Trayvon Mullen, and defensive linemen Johnathan Hankins and Bilal Nichols — on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
All three could be back for the regular season.
The Davante Show
Ziegler made quite the first impression in Las Vegas, pulling off perhaps the biggest blockbuster trade in Raider history to acquire a receiver whom NFL executives, coaches and players recently voted football’s best in Davante Adams.
Seeing the perennial Pro Bowler in silver and black has been a pipe dream of the franchise’s fan base for years, ever since quarterback Derek Carr voiced the idea of reuniting with his former Fresno State teammate in the pros. Turns out Adams was just as interested as he rejected a larger contract offer to stay with the Green Bay Packers to move to Las Vegas and work with Carr.
Adams puts an immediate end to the Raiders’ longtime search for a No. 1 receiver. It’s been a focus ever since the team traded Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in the middle of the 2018 season.
That led to a trade for Antonio Brown early in 2019 and a drama-filled training camp with the former Pittsburgh Steeler receiver who never ended up appearing in a game with the Raiders. Las Vegas then drafted Henry Ruggs III with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He was breaking out to start last season before he was charged with driving under the influence resulting in death after a fiery crash that tragically killed a young woman.
Adams firms up the No. 1 receiver role for the foreseeable future after signing a five-year, $140 million deal with the Raiders. Seeing him in a Raiders jersey is going to take some getting used to, but fans couldn’t be more ready for it.
The battle in the trenches
Fans may need to build an algorithm to calculate all the various permutations of possible starting lineups on the offensive line this season.
Left tackle Kolton Miller is the only sure thing. Center Andre James’ spot would also seem to be secure after a solid first year as a starter last season, but nothing is ever too certain with a new coaching staff coming in. And McDaniels has mentioned giving Dylan Parham, the team’s top draft pick this season out of Memphis, a look at center as well.
The favorites at the other three spots are also incumbents in Good at right guard, John Simpson at left guard and Alex Leatherwood at right tackle. But none of them are proven above-average starters at the NFL level, which leaves the door open for a number of other possible party-crashers including Brandon Parker, Jermaine Eluemunor and Lester Cotton.
Parker, a tackle, and Eluemunor, a guard, both started games last season because of injury, and Ziegler made sure to retain them as free agents. Cotton, a guard and former teammate of Leatherwood’s at Alabama who went undrafted in 2019, was a standout of minicamp and organized team activities.
Adding more complexity is the fact that Parham, Leatherwood and Good can all play multiple positions. Oh, and so too can fellow rookie Thayer Munford out of Ohio State.
If nothing else, McDaniels and his crew of offensive line coaching assistants in Carmen Bricillo and Cameron Clemmons will have plenty of options on how to construct Carr’s protection.
The battle in the secondary
The defensive backfield puzzle is missing fewer pieces than the offensive line, but it’s still far from complete going into training camp.
Graham likes to have five defensive backs on the field most of the time, and only two of those roles figure to be set. Second-year players Tre’von Moehrig and Nate Hobbs should be entrenched at free safety and nickelback, respectively, after they were two of the best defensive rookies in the league last season.
Trayvon Mullen, Rock Ya-Sin and Anthony Averett will likely be competing for starting outside cornerback assignments. All three should play throughout the year, especially with injuries, but two must emerge as primary options.
Mullen, a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2019, has shown the highest level of play out of the three, but it’s been fleeting. The Clemson product has struggled with consistency and injuries, including playing only five games last year.
Ya-Sin, taken six picks ahead of Mullen out of Temple three years ago, may have the highest upside but could never fully unlock it with the Colts, leading to a trade with the Raiders for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue in March.
Averett, a fourth-round pick out of Alabama in 2018, might be the safest choice, which is surprising considering he wasn’t even considered a lock to make the Baltimore Ravens roster last year. But Averett filled in for an injury-plagued Baltimore secondary admirably with a steadier, less aggressive coverage style than the ones employed by Ya-Sin and Mullen.
At strong safety, Graham will need to choose between incumbent Johnathan Abram and newcomer Duron Harmon. The former is better suited for the run game, while the latter is less of a liability in pass coverage.
The Raiders freed up more than $20 million in June when dead money from the contracts of released linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski came off the books.
So far, they’ve used … none of it. That’s not necessarily surprising — they’re fourth in the NFL in available cap space behind the Browns, Panthers and Cowboys according to spotrac.com —and might be a sign that the coaching staff is confident with the 90 players they’re carrying into camp.
But because of the space, rumors of additions will persist, and options remain open. If the Raiders were to add anyone, it would most likely come on the offensive line or secondary based on the aforementioned uncertainty at those positions.
Several trusted veterans remain unsigned in free agency including former Chiefs and Colts tackle Eric Fisher, former Vikings and Lions tackle Riley Reiff, former Broncos and Chargers cornerback Chris Harris and former Browns and Steelers cornerback Joe Haden.
Las Vegas may be interested in upgrading at defensive line, where perennial All Pro Ndamukong Suh has been linked to the franchise.
The Raiders could also wait to see if any injuries create a need elsewhere on the roster. That’s what happened last year when former general manager Mike Mayock brought in veteran linebacker K.J. Wright a week before the season.
Bringing in another big name is far from guaranteed, but given their financial situation, it’s squarely in the realm of possibilities for the Raiders.
Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or