Oakland Raiders have reasons for optimism despite talk of Los Angeles
FOX Sports senior NFL writer Alex Marvez’s training camp tour made its second stop in Napa Valley, Calif. Here are some of the things he learned and observed while visiting Raiders camp with SiriusXM NFL Radio co-host Gil Brandt. Read his Oakland report today and check back on the following dates for his next stops on the tour:
Needing an upgrade: The phrase "Commitment to Excellence" actually carries some gravitas for the Oakland Raiders once again.
While the Raiders still have a ways to go before breaking a string of 12 straight non-winning seasons — let alone becoming a championship contender once again — a significant step toward respectability was made this offseason with the renovation of the team’s practice facility in Alameda, Calif.
The money spent on the changes — which reportedly range between $10 million and $40 million — doesn’t come across as sexy as if given to a high-profile player. But the splurging by Raiders owner Mark Davis should have a more positive long-term impact toward winning than any single personnel addition.
"When you talk about a ‘Commitment to Excellence,’ it’s not just about the players," said safety Charles Woodson, who has played 11 of his 18 seasons with Oakland. "Wherever you’re working at, you want that to also exude excellence."
As the Raiders fell into disrepair over the past decade-plus, Oakland’s practice domain did the same. Some of the bigger problems included:
— Practice fields whose condition was so poor that it may have led to a rash of player foot injuries.
"It was unbelievable," one Raiders veteran told FOX Sports. "There was cement and everything."
— Some of the treadmills couldn’t be used for conditioning or rehabilitation by heavier players because the belts would skip.
— There was no steam room.
— The weight-lifting area was an accident waiting to happen because of how cramped together the players were while training.
— And finally, the locker-room cubicles were smaller than those at the major college level.
Not only did such decay hurt player morale, Woodson said it sent a negative message to free agents the Raiders were courting to sign because "you want them to see the best of the best because when they go other places there going to see (the same). You want to be able to compete in that regard.
"You also want people to go down to the facility and want to hang around," continued Woodson, who saw that dynamic develop during his six seasons in Green Bay (2006 to 2011). "That’s really what it’s all about. When you’ve got guys hanging around, they’re not other places … If it’s looking good, you want to be there. That’s important for the organization."
The willingness to upgrade team headquarters and spend competitively on assistant coaches were two of the pitches Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio made when negotiating with Davis to become Oakland’s new head coach in January.
"When you’re demanding excellence from players, you want them to come to work full of energy and excited about walking into the building," said Del Rio. "We spend more time during the year in those buildings meeting and training and all those things than we do with our own families."
The Raiders’ facility will feature three new practice fields with improved turf and irrigation, a 20,000 square-foot gym with a hydration bar and an expanded locker room. The project should be finished by the time the Raiders break camp and return to their headquarters on Aug. 25.
"We’re fortunate that we’re able to turn that thing around," Del Rio said. "It’s really going to be a special, special place. When our guys get back, it’s going to blow their mind because we’ve really done some amazing things there."
South-bound? On the surface, it seems contradictory that Davis would invest in renovating Raiders headquarters with the strong possibility of a move to Los Angeles or elsewhere. But even if 2015 marks the final season the Raiders play in Oakland, there is a strong chance the club would continue to use the facility for several more years and commute to home games as a practice facility is built in their new locale.
Mind over matter: The renovated practice facility isn’t the only way in which Del Rio is trying to instill positive off-field changes. As first reported by USA Today, the Raiders have hired a "mindset coach" in Scott Peltin. Del Rio said Peltin has taken members of the front office and coaches through the process of learning to get "high energy, high performance day in and day out" from players and themselves.
"We all come excited at this time of year," Del Rio said. "It’s what you’re able to do and how you’re able to sustain it in late November and early December and those dog days. How are you able to continue to have great effort and energy? We tapped into some of those thoughts."
Mack daddy: Khalil Mack is still listed as a linebacker by the Raiders, but don’t buy it. Mack is working primarily at defensive end to take better advantage of his pass-rush skills under new coordinator Ken Norton Jr. Mack, who had a modest four sacks during his rookie season, bulked up during the offseason to 265 pounds to give himself more anchor playing along the line.
"He’s so athletic that he can do multiple things," said Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who picked Mack No. 5 overall in last year’s draft. "I’m sure Kenny is going to move him around. He’s not going to be a sitting duck. But one of the best things (Mack) does is get after that quarterback. I think this staff is going to try and utilize that the best way and put him in different positions to be successful."
Target practice: There also is a major change for Oakland’s other prized selection of the 2014 draft. Quarterback Derek Carr now has two new receiving weapons to work with in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Cooper, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, is already showing glimpses of being an elite wideout during practice while Crabtree looks ready to rebound from a down campaign in San Francisco.
Carr cited Cooper’s route-running and ability to come in and out of breaks as "special."
"When you throw a ball out there and think maybe it’s overthrown, he puts his head down and goes and gets it," Carr said.
As for Crabtree, Carr said the strengths he brings to Oakland go beyond athletic ability.
"He’s one of the smartest receivers I’ve ever been around," Carr said. "He gives great feedback. It’s not ‘in one ear and out the other’ kind of stuff. It’s real stuff that’s going to help us win games. We all know his talent, but the coolest thing about him is how great of a teammate he is."
Time to run wild: Two other areas of improvement around Carr should be the running game and offensive line. Latavius Murray, whose big-play potential was showcased during a 90-yard touchdown run last November against Kansas City, is set to assume the starting role previously held by the departed Darren McFadden (Dallas).
Raiders fullback Marcel Reece believes Murray is now in position to handle that responsibility after two bumpy NFL seasons.
"It’s being confident in himself and knowing what he can do," Reece said. "Also, like everyone else, it’s staying healthy. That was the big thing in his (2013) rookie year — he just wasn’t healthy. Last year, he wasn’t as confident yet and was still learning behind D-Mac.
"I think D-Mac really helped him a lot by teaching him and talking to him all the time. It was a passing-of-the-torch thing."
Murray is well aware that new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave held the same position in Minnesota when Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012.
"I’ve been a fan of AP growing up as a kid and watching him play," Murray said. "I definitely try to take things from him that he does very well. I know that Bill had him in Minnesota. He’s going to do some similar things so hopefully I can get some of the big yards (Peterson) had then."
Youth movement: Murray will be running behind a line that features some intriguing youngsters. Left guard Gabe Jackson continues to draw raves as he builds upon an impressive first season that McKenzie believes stacks up well against any other rookie guard from 2014.
"I know everybody was talking about the kid in Dallas (Zach Martin) and the kid in Cleveland (Joel Bitonio). That’s fine," McKenzie said. "But we love our kid we got here in Big Gabe. We’ll take him any time of the week."
Right tackle Menelik Watson also appears set for a breakout campaign after battling injuries during his first two NFL seasons. A native of the United Kingdom, Watson also was in the difficult position of being thrust into action early despite having limited football experience.
Watson said he has stopped placing so much pressure on himself to try and justify his standing as a 2013 second-round pick out of Florida State, which also produced another international player drafted early that same year who has struggled in Indianapolis — outside linebacker Bjorn Werner. Watson admits that he and other international players are usually at the point of "seeing the game as children in our growth and development" when reaching the NFL level.
"I’m very confident in the position and understanding what it takes to be an offensive lineman," Watson said. "I’m just having fun this year. I came into 2015 and said no matter what happens, I’m going to enjoy this game of football."
Getting defensive: A bond has already developed between 11-year defensive end Justin Tuck and 2015 second-round choice Mario Edwards Jr. Tuck spends time during practice speaking with Edwards about nuances of the game that can help accelerate his development.
"Obviously, a lot of people came before me and paved the way for what the NFL is," said Tuck, who joined the Raiders last season after nine years with the New York Giants. "If we don’t teach them the things guys taught us from the past — what Michael Strahan taught me and what Deacon Jones taught him — then this league kind of fades.
"I love the fact Mario is one of those guys who knows he doesn’t know it yet. He reaches out and asks, ‘How do I play a five-technique when the (tackle) goes down and the tight end is offset?’ I’m excited to work with him, but I always remind him that I’m not passing the torch just yet."
Last, but not least: Talent-wise, the Raiders are still widely considered a fourth-place AFC West team. Del Rio, though, deserves credit for quickly helping Oakland psychologically move past a disastrous 3-13 campaign in which the Raiders were the last team to win a game following an 0-10 start.
"We’ve got new coaches and a new style," Smith said. "The tempo is a little faster and intensity a little higher. That’s what you need when you want to be a good team. We’re trying to set the standard by doing it every day."
Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt will be live on SiriusXM NFL Radio from 7 to10 p.m. ET Wednesday with Alex’s FOX Sports column on the Cowboys running Friday.