Jon Gruden has compelling evidence in his favor, recent proof of the impact rookies can make in the NFL.
But this offseason, the Raiders’ head coach has been prevented from investigating firsthand this year’s promising draft class.
Man. Is there anything the coronavirus hasn’t affected?
Transitioning from college to pro football is difficult enough for a player. It’s like driving a Big Wheel one day and a semi-truck the next. Takes time to adjust. To hone one’s skill. To avoid rolling through a guardrail and crashing into a barrier. Or into Khalil Mack. Same difference.
Rookies won’t have the standard learning curve this season, COVID-19 having eliminated the opportunity for critical on-field weeks of practice following the draft and into training camp. Zoom is good for talking with a relative. It’s brutal for an initial relationship with a position coach or coordinator.
The Raiders aren’t facing this challenge alone — “We’re not the Lone Ranger, everybody in the league is going through this,” Gruden said. Yet given how well some of the Raiders’ rookies performed last season, Gruden and his staff had to be excited about working with the latest draft class.
Good, for most part
Not all Raiders rookies produced as desired in 2019. Johnathan Abram was lost for the season to injury following the first game, in which the first-round safety had five tackles. Clelin Ferrell, picked fourth overall, struggled (mightily) at defensive end.
But there was also Josh Jacobs breaking Marcus Allen’s rookie franchise rushing record. And a fourth-round pick in Maxx Crosby leading the team in sacks. And a fifth-round slot wideout in Hunter Renfrow fitting into Gruden’s system with 605 receiving yards and four touchdowns. And a second-round cornerback in Trayvon Mullen assuming a starting role in Week 8. For a team that went 7-9, the Raiders at least began to develop key pieces in chartering a Las Vegas future.
“We’ve been good at fast-tracking players at every position,” Gruden said. “Last year was a great indication. I think over the last couple years, a lot of young players have played for us. That was the goal when we got here. You could say we excavated the land here in terms of the roster the first year. But we have built it back with young players.
“So we’re not afraid to play the young guys, but they’ve got to earn it.”
A popular theory goes that teams returning a head coach and a majority of his staff will have an easier time moving forward from months of video chats. That new faces with new schemes and technology and such could struggle at the outset of the season. Whenever that is.
The same can be said for rookies. Some arrive more prepared based exclusively on size or speed or strengths or smarts. Or special ones who have it all. But few rookies are pro ready. Some just cover up their warts better than others.
“I’ll say the toughest thing probably (will be) to get acclimated,” said wide receiver Henry Ruggs, chosen No. 12 overall by the Raiders. “Everybody (has been) at home, kind of doing training on their own or what they think things will be like. Pretty much the big thing is transitioning from personal workouts to actual on-field things such as walk-throughs and real practices.”
Needs are obvious
The Raiders need Ruggs as a lead receiver to transition fast, the same way he runs a 40-yard dash. They need first-round cornerback Damon Arnette to compete for a starter’s role and linebacker Tanner Muse to at least shine on special teams. They need additional new offensive faces in wide receiver Bryan Edwards and running back Lynn Bowden to produce when called upon. They need guard John Simpson not to be totally overmatched.
This isn’t an entirely new concept. A lockout in 2011 also meant no offseason programs following the draft. The world didn’t end. Some rookies had fine seasons. Cam Newton had a great one.
“I’m not going to make any predictions until I see (players) live over the next few weeks,” Gruden said. “We have a lot of plays, a lot of parts, a lot of high aspirations and expectations.”
He just needs new evidence, is all.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.