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Raiders defense looks faster and more athletic than last year

Because of the NFL’s rigid COVID-19 training camp regimen, it wasn’t until Friday morning that the Raiders were able to devote long periods of their morning practice to pitting their first-team offense against the first-team defense.

It didn’t take long before something became readily apparent.

The Raiders’ defense is clearly faster and more athletic than at any point since Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock took charge.

The new-look defense is one of a handful of observations from the first week of football-related work at the Raiders’ practice facility in Henderson.

About that defense

At one point during an 11-on-11 period on Friday, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr threw a short pass to tight end Darren Waller cutting across the second level of the defense. Last year, a speedy talent like Waller would have run free across the face of slow-footed Raiders linebackers, who would have been unable to keep up.

But on Friday, new Raiders linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski immediately converged on Waller. Had the pads been on and real hitting been allowed, Littleton and Kwiatkoski would have been in perfect position to either drop Waller to the ground or maybe jar the ball loose for an incompletion.

That was the case throughout the day. The rebuilt Raiders defense was continually in the right place, be it first- and second-year cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen bodying up and running stride for stride with receivers or Littleton and Kwiatkoski executing their run fits or keeping up in pass coverage.

Waller was impressed.

“Yeah, without a doubt they look faster,” Waller said. “We had guys up there, I mean Damon Arnette is fearless on the outside as far as press coverage. He’ll line up against anybody. Trayvon (Mullen) is the same way. You throw in guys like Damarious (Randall), Jeff Heath is running around all over the place, linebackers as well. … I feel like the defense is a lot more confident and without a doubt faster.”

Watch out for Arnette

The Raiders raised eyebrows by selecting Arnette with the 19th pick in the first round last April, but they easily brushed off the outside criticism while expressing confidence that he was worthy of the investment.

Given how COVID-19 completely sabotaged the offseason, the Raiders brought in veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara to potentially serve as a placeholder for Arnette. That could still be the case, at least early in the season.

But it’s worth noting that Arnette lined up with the first-team defense for most of Friday’s full-team drills and looked comfortable opposite Mullen, who broke through over the second half of his rookie year to lock down one cornerback spot.

“They’re young and athletic and we have a long way to go,” Gruden said of his two cornerbacks. “They had some good snaps. They had some bad snaps. But we had good competition today and we’re excited about the youth that we have.”

Raiders defensive back Trayvon Mullen (27) stretches during an NFL football training camp pract ...
Raiders defensive back Trayvon Mullen (27) stretches during an NFL football training camp practice Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Henderson, Nev. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, Pool)

Put up or shut up for Key

The Raiders invested three years and $25 million into rush end Carl Nassib during free agency. He’ll fill a key role off the bench to either spell Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby or play alongside them in certain packages.

Nassib’s signing clearly affects the playing time of Arden Key, a disappointment over his first two seasons after being drafted in the second round in 2018. Nevertheless, Key’s roster spot appeared secure to start camp, given the need for depth along the defensive line.

That may have changed on Friday when the Raiders officially signed veteran defensive end Datone Jones. A former pupil of new Raiders defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, Jones could push Key right off the roster if he shows he still has some gas in the tank.

Key has all the necessary size and athleticism, but he might need a huge showing when the pads come on next week to lock down a roster spot.

Load management here to stay

Neither veteran right tackle Trent Brown nor second-year running back Josh Jacobs was on the field during the first three days of football-related practices this week. While each is coming off a season that was cut short due to injuries, the Raiders insist they are fine physically.

The key is, they want to keep it that way as long as possible. To that end, get used to an altered work schedule for some players during camp and perhaps even the regular season. Gruden and the training staff have put together a plan to help get key players through the season and they are serious about sticking to it..

The goal is to insure that the Raiders are as physically fit as possible for the final stretch of the regular season and beyond.

That wasn’t the case last year, Injuries played a major role in the wheels coming off in the Raiders’ ill-fated playoff push. The loss of Jacobs in three of the Raiders’ last four games was particularly painful .

“He’s got to stay healthy. We need our feature back down the stretch,” Gruden said.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter.

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