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With OTAs in the books, expectation level rises for Raiders

A brutally hot stretch of weather forced the Raiders to alter their work schedule during mandatory minicamp. So there they were last week, before the crack of dawn, congregating at their Henderson headquarters as they raced to beat the heat with a pair of 7:30 a.m. practices to conclude an illuminating eight-week offseason program.

Bleary eyes notwithstanding, a foundation was laid over the past two months. The sturdiness of which will get tested next fall when the Raiders play what is generally considered among the 10 toughest schedules in the NFL.

As head coach Jon Gruden bid farewell to his players for the rest of the summer, a growing level of optimism and confidence flowed throughout the sprawling facility. Gruden publicly alluded to it when he declared “expectations are rising.”

There is a belief among these Raiders that they are capable of taking a big step forward, which leaves little room for the sort of excuse-making they used to explain away two straight second-half swoons.

A focused offseason resulted in talent upgrades and greater depth along the defensive line and secondary. An offensive line that struggled with availability and performance got younger and perhaps more athletic and powerful. More firepower was added to a top-10 caliber offense, and the growth of Henry Ruggs could lift that group to another level.

Gruden entrusted his defense to Gus Bradley, not just in scheme and messaging but as a significant voice in talent acquisition. A young core has a year under its belt and is coming off the first full offseason program in two years.

For the first time in years, the Raiders genuinely believe they have the talent in place to be real players in the AFC playoff chase.

“There’s a certain level of championship effort we need to get to,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “There’s a certain level of championship finishing that we have to do. If we can do that, I believe the sky is the limit for us.”

Here are five takeaways as the Raiders depart for their summer break.

Leatherwood seems to fit

The Raiders raised eyebrows with the selection of Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood with the 17th pick in last April’s draft. Only time will tell if they reached too far on the former Outland Trophy award winner or locked down the right tackle position for the foreseeable future.

At quick glance he looks like a fit for the Raiders’ zone-run scheme, which relies on athletic tackles motoring to spots to seal off defenders. Leatherwood looked athletic and explosive throughout OTAs. If that carries over to the regular season, the Raiders will be in a better position to create the punishing run game that is a staple of Gruden’s offense.

Arnette odd man out?

While the media didn’t get to see the Raiders’ first-team offense and defense work together in 11-on-11 settings, the open portions of practice offered a curious look at Arnette, who seemed to do more observing than participating during drills.

Meanwhile, Arnette’s name never came up in media updates with Gruden or Bradley, both of whom mentioned a bunch of defensive backs but conspicuously omitted Arnette, the 19th pick in last year’s draft.

The signing of veteran Casey Hayward put Arnette on notice that his grip on a starting job was loose, at best. And it appears Hayward has already ripped it away from the second-year corner from Ohio State.

While moving inside could be a possibility, Bradley mentioned Nevin Lawson and recent draft picks Nate Hobbs and Amik Robertson as more serious candidates for that job. Behind the scenes, there is skepticism Arnette could handle that position switch.

The rhetoric could be the Raiders’ way of motivating Arnette, but it looks like he has his work cut out for him to get back on solid footing with the coaching staff.

Linebacker depth uncertain

A big part of OTAs was the prolonged look Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock took of their roster ahead of training camp, and even casual observers could detect a level of uncertainty behind starting linebackers Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow.

The Raiders have hope that backups Tanner Muse, Javin White and Divine Deablo will be able to contribute. But among them, only White has appeared in an NFL game and of the 56 snaps he’s played, 44 came on special teams.

The Raiders signed veteran Darron Lee this week to add some experience, but unless the youngsters prove in training camp they can be trusted, the Raiders might have to look outside the building again to beef up this group.

Ruggs ready to blossom?

The 12th pick in last year’s draft didn’t deliver the individual numbers normally associated with that spot in the draft, and the Raiders sent Ruggs into the offseason with a lengthy list of items to focus on.

The regular season will ultimately reveal if he checked off all the boxes, but Ruggs looked bigger, stronger and more explosive during OTAs. His quarterback detected a much improved player.

“The way he’s running routes. He’s being violent in his cuts,” Carr said. “I think something clicked in his head.”

That needs to carry over to the regular season, when it will be incumbent on the Raiders to use Ruggs more than they did last year when he was targeted just 43 times in the pass game and was featured only nine times on runs.

Rookies impress in secondary

Through free agency and the draft, the Raiders added six players that could end up playing significant snaps in the secondary. Hayward is the odds-on favorite to win one of the outside cornerback spots, and while veteran Nevin Lawson is the penciled-in starter in the slot, keep an eye on Hobbs, who has drawn praise from teammates and the coaching staff.

“I feel like he’s going to be really talented,” veteran cornerback Trayvon Mullen said of Hobbs. “He practices hard, he goes through his drills really well. I like the way he approaches practice.”

Moehrig appears to be the frontrunner at free safety, but the Raiders are anxious to see the former TCU standout and Gillespie in pads before making a final determination. Both rookies could end up making impacts.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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