Raiders could be the talk of NFL's preseason
In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that the Oakland Raiders were interested in Antonio Brown. After all, the years general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden spent in television had given them more opportunities to see the superstar wide receiver practice than almost anyone in the league.
“I probably have seen this guy practice at least 20 times over the years,” Mayock said. “I came away saying there's nobody who works harder between the lines than Antonio. Jon felt the same way. And that's what we've seen here. He's been a great teammate. ... He brings an energy to the huddle and to the team that is just awesome to watch.”
The decision to trade for Brown and then sign him to a contract extension was not only the highest-profile move of the Raiders' busy and heavily scrutinized offseason, it was reflective of what Mayock and Gruden attempted to do with most of their acquisitions - upgrade the roster and maximize the opportunity for quarterback Derek Carr to succeed, but on their own terms.
The Raiders figure to be at the center of the NFL universe this training camp, with HBO cameras there to capture every moment for “Hard Knocks,” after an offseason in which they dominated headlines with big-name pickups and a trio of first-round draft picks. Win or lose, they will be one of the most interesting teams in football. In an interview last month, Mayock explained his and Gruden's rationale for several of the moves, which they hope will make the team much more competitive after last year's 4-12 campaign.
Oakland went into the offseason with a plan to surround Carr with as much talent as possible, so their interest was piqued when it became clear Brown, whose relationship with the Pittsburgh Steelers had run its course, would be available via trade. Mayock, a 1981 draft choice of the Steelers, has known Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert for more than 20 years, and the two men discussed Brown several times. Mayock said Colbert wanted a first-round pick. The Raiders had three but weren't going to give up any of them in a trade.
“We were adamant about that,” Mayock said.
Gruden and Mayock were content to pass on Brown unless it was for the right price, and they benefited when a better offer never materialized. The Steelers worked out a deal with the Buffalo Bills, but the Bills backed out because of what Brown wanted in a new contract.
The Steelers contacted Gruden the next day and asked if the Raiders would consider sending them a second-round pick.
“Jon got on the phone with me right away and said, ‘Pittsburgh would do the deal for a No. 2,' ” Mayock said. “I said no. Our second-round pick was 35, toward the top of the second round. I thought our first four picks (were untouchable).”
Colbert called Mayock and talked about a third-round pick, later asking Oakland to also throw in a fifth-rounder. The deal was “on and off the table” while Oakland and Brown tried to agree on a new contract, but eventually it got done. Since agreeing with Brown on a three-year, $50.1 million deal that includes $30.1 million in guarantees, the Raiders have been impressed with his commitment.
“He's committed to what he believes,” Mayock said. “That's why he has a full-time nutritionist and full-time social media people. ... He travels with a group, and he's committed to it. He's a smart guy.”
The Raiders didn't stop there, adding a second receiver in deep threat Tyrell Williams on a four-year, $44 million contract.
“He's a West Coast guy, and I think he was excited about our A.B. signing, and I think he wanted to play for Jon,” Mayock said. “We didn't think he had enough money left, to be frank. We were able to sit down with Ty and his agent and got a little creative. I think one of the challenges for our offense is to move A.B. around to all three wide receiver positions and force defenses to find him, which is tough with a No. 2 guy like Ty.”
Perhaps the most controversial signing in all of free agency was the $16.5 million a year invested in Trent Brown, who was the New England Patriots' left tackle last season but will play right tackle for the Raiders. He's the highest-paid blocker in football - unheard of for a right tackle - but Mayock said they're happy with the tandem of Brown and second-year left tackle Kolton Miller, a first-round pick a year ago.
“When we looked at free agency, we had some money left,” Mayock said. “If you put on the film in the playoffs against the Chargers and the Chiefs - and keep in mind those two teams are in our division - (Brown) pitched a shutout. He can be up and down. He has some inconsistencies, but he's still a puppy. He's like 26 years old. We feel confident between Trent and Kolton we'll have a really good tackle combination for years to come.”
With Brown and Williams at wide receiver, Brown and Miller at the tackle spots and first-round pick Josh Jacobs at running back, Oakland has invested significant resources in the supporting cast for Carr, who has struggled the past two seasons. Oakland made moves to address its defense as well, including a four-year, $42 million for safety LaMarcus Joyner, whom Mayock calls a “leader and a mentor” whose “football intelligence is off the charts,” and a one-year, $2 million flier on former Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
“I think the thing that people don't know about Vontaze is his intelligence,” Mayock said of Burfict, who battled with Antonio Brown for years and has repeatedly been disciplined by the NFL for dangerous hits. “You know, we all get excited about the penalties and big hits, but at the end of the day he gets us lined up. He understands (defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's) defense better than anybody. If he's in shape and healthy, he's still a top-level linebacker.”
The team took heat for the selection of Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell at fourth overall, given Ferrell was projected to go in the middle or later part of the first round, but Mayock said he feels good about the pick.
“What I like about Ferrell as opposed to the other defensive ends (in the draft) is that I knew what we were getting,” Mayock said. “He's 265 pounds and could end up playing at 275 to 280. He looks like the defensive ends Paul Guenther had in Cincinnati. He had so much success with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap.”
Gruden will likely need to get big contributions out of Ferrell and the Raiders' third first-rounder, safety Johnathan Abram, for the defense to show major improvement. But if nothing else, they represent two interesting pieces on what should be a fascinating team this season, one that will be in the spotlight throughout training camp and into the start of the season.