Oakland Raiders

‘It’s a real exciting time to be a Raider.’ Three reasons to think the defense is rising

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass Tuesday, quickly noticing rookies Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby closing in. His pass was batted down, falling harmlessly to the ground.

Not long afterward, Carr spotted Antonio Brown breaking free down the right sideline in a red zone drill. It’s been a common sight during media access periods in the offseason, as Brown seems to be just a little faster than anyone else on the field.

Not this time. Third-year linebacker Nicholas Morrow stayed with Brown, knocking down the pass in the end zone. Brown smiled, and Morrow’s defensive teammates went crazy.

“When Nick made that breakup I saw the whole defensive sideline try to run out and congratulate him,” middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “The energy here is just amazing. I can’t wait to start the season off.”

Granted, it was an early June organized team activity. No pads allowed, no hitting. It’s mostly about choreography, timing, footwork and play recognition. Raiders players, of course are expecting big things.

Tahir Whitehead, the linebacker who played nearly every snap a year ago and intercepted a bobbled pass Tuesday, said, “We definitely have the team to go out and do something this year.”

“It’s a real exciting time to be a Raider,” defensive tackle Mo Hurst said. “I think camp is going to be fun.”

Training camp in Napa is where we’ll have an idea how much better the Raiders will be defensively in 2019. But it’s hard not to notice they already have made considerable improvement. Judging from their struggles in every area on defense a year ago, it’s a low bar to clear.

But here are three reasons for optimism with the Raiders having their final OTA this week with their mandatory minicamp scheduled from June 11-13:

1. An influx of youth

Ferrell and Crosby on the defensive line to go along with safety Jonathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen on the back end join forces with tackles Hurst and P.J. Hall and defensive end Arden Key, second-year players who learned the hard way a year ago.

The Raiders will be younger and faster, and that alone will count for a lot. Ferrell, taken No. 4 out of Clemson, is turning heads.

“That’s the type of guy we had in Cincinnati with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, every-down ends that are big men, can rush and play the run,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Burfict has been impressed with Ferrell’s maturity.

“He’s a rookie, but I swear he’s been here like five years,” Burfict said. “Doesn’t act like a rookie at all, comes in to handle business. He’s even a leader in the huddle. Just cheering guys up, let’s finish the period off, and that’s a lot coming from a rookie. When I was rookie I didn’t want to say much, just go out do my job.”

Veteran Tahir Whitehead is getting a similar vibe from Abram, the No. 27 overall pick out of Mississippi State.

“J.A. on the back end, we talk a lot, that’s my guy,” Whitehead said. “I love it, young guys coming in, showing how confident they are. We can build on that. We need more guys that are confident in their skill set and you’re bringing that to the team. That’s going to take us a long way.”

2. Burfict settling in

Guenther bonded with Burfict when he coached linebackers with the Bengals and has always believed in him. Burfict did not have a good season last year. There was concern Burfict could be an “old” 28 and it’s not out of the realm that training camp could expose issues with quickness and in coverage.

But he’s been running with the first team from the outset, has become a leader in terms of being the defensive signal caller, and will be given every chance to prove he can rebound. He’ll never shake the reputation of crossing the line and being a cheap shot artist, but he was generally a pretty good teammate in Cincinnati and is making a good impression with the Raiders.

“It helps a lot having a guy that’s extremely familiar with the scheme, for six years (in Cincinnati) he was in the system,” Whitehead said. “You know all the nuances, all the checks, all the calls. Having Vontaze has been a huge help.”

3. Fewer secondary concerns

Yes, Brown beat Daryl Worley for a touchdown and Carr was able to get a deep shot to Tyrell Williams of more than 50 yards. That’s what’s supposed to happen in noncontact full-team drills as well as seven-on-seven.

But Raiders defenders are getting their hands on the ball and a lot of balls hit the ground Tuesday simply because receivers were covered. Carr also had to wait on initial reads and a handful of times was flushed out of the pocket.

Gareon Conley graded out as one of the NFL’s top pure cover corners last year according to Profootballfocus.com. The Raiders coaches like Worley’s ability and physicality, and they’ve been joined by Mullen and free agent Nevin Lawson, the veteran who broke up a pass Tuesday.

Then there is LaMarcus Joyner, who will play a lot of slot corner. The back end will also include Abram and Karl Joseph, the latter now in a contract year.

“We’ve got some guys on the back end who can cover guys one-on-one,” Guenther said.