Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 | 9 a.m.
The Raiders turned to linebacker Cory Littleton to turn around a perennially subpar defense this offseason.
Galvanized by game film from the 26-year-old’s time with the Los Angeles Rams, the Raiders made Littleton their highest-paid defensive player this season, signing him to a three-year, $36 million deal on the second day of free agency in March. Since then, Las Vegas has remained confident that Littleton will make an immediate impact. But through one week of training camp, it was still based entirely on what the team had seen from afar. It had yet to work with him up close.
“Never met him, [and] you know we paid this guy a lot of money to be our featured defensive player,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “There’s a lot of [other] free agents I’ve not had hands-on contact with.”
The coronavirus has the Raiders, along with the rest of the NFL, scrambling to get ready for the September 10 start to the regular season in a condensed time frame. Per social-distancing protocol, players weren’t permitted at team facilities during the offseason and were required to test negative twice within a 72-hour period before being allowed to join teams for training camp, which officially kicked off July 28.
Padded practices won’t begin until August 16, and all four traditional preseason games have been scrapped. The league’s own guide to the altered training camp, posted on NFL.com, concludes that, “Unquestionably, the circumstances favor teams with continuity.”
The Raiders aren’t breaking in any new systems in their third season under Gruden, but they are relying on a number of free agents and first- and second-year players. That means, at least on the surface, the new rules are a particular hurdle.
Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock and have described nearly every acquisition and draft pick they have made since teaming up two years ago as some combination of a high-character guy, hard worker and holder of a strong football IQ. Those phrases will need to prove more than empty words for the Raiders to have a successful first season in Las Vegas.
The onus is on players like Littleton and fellow free agent linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, along with a spate of high draft picks from the past two years—including 2020 first rounders Henry Ruggs III at receiver and Damon Arnette at cornerback—to show up ready, physically and mentally. There’s not as much time as usual to practice into shape or learn the playbook alongside coaches and teammates.
The Raiders say they feel confident with the way an intensive virtual offseason training program and meeting schedule went. Rookies were allowed into the team’s Henderson headquarters a week early—small consolation given that they normally would have been through a couple of minicamps by now—and Ruggs reports that everyone came ready.
“I’m fired up the way these guys are coming in, everybody is coming to work,” he said. “Coming in early, leaving late. And just talking to them, everybody has the right mindset to go in and help the team out. So, I feel like whenever it’s that time, any one of us can step up and do some big things.”
Wide receiver and defensive back are generally considered to be among the positions requiring the steepest learning curve going from college to pro football, and that’s where the Raiders loaded up in the draft. Arnette and fourth-round pick Amik Robertson are being counted on to help turn around one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses at cornerback. Ruggs is expected to immediately give the offense the type of explosive, big-play threat it lacked last year, with fellow pass-catching third-round selections Bryan Edwards and Lynn Bowden also among the new key contributors.
Ruggs said quarterback Derek Carr provides the new Raiders with an advantage. The seventh-year veteran has stayed in touch throughout quarantine, helping newcomers learn the playbook. He has even invited Ruggs to his home to work on passing routes.
The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are prohibitive favorites in the AFC West, with the Raiders projected to battle the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers for second place in the division and a possible wild-card playoff berth. Those two teams don’t have an entrenched starter behind center, so Carr should give Las Vegas an edge over Denver’s Drew Lock, a second-year player who took over at the end of last season, and whomever LA chooses to start between journeyman Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert.
Remaining training camp schedule
• August 3-11: Acclimation period (one hour in the weight room, one hour of on-field conditioning, one hour to 75 minutes of walkthrough practice permitted)
• August 12-16: Ramp-up period (helmet-only practices permitted)
• August 8 and 15: Mandatory off-days
• August 17-September 6: Padded practices (maximum of 14 total practices allowed)
That makes it hard to say definitively whether the limited training camp helps or hurts the Raiders. Either way, it’s not how they wanted to introduce themselves to Las Vegas, but they’re looking to make the most of it.
“We’re trying to be as creative as possible,” Gruden said. “We can’t watch practice or be around, but we’re trying hard to be on the cutting edge of technology, coaching our system and making our philosophies standard for everyone, trying to raise the bar around here.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.