Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Raiders’ practice has gotten noticeably louder since the start of last week.
Not coincidentally, that’s when the team took rookie starting cornerback Damon Arnette off injured reserve to allow his return from a broken thumb after missing a month.
“When Damon is in the building, you know he’s here,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “He has a real presence about him.”
Las Vegas is hoping Arnette provides a similar boost on the field Sunday, when he’s expected to return for the 1:05 p.m. home game against the Denver Broncos for his first action since Week 3. Gruden says the coaching staff hasn’t determined how much Arnette will play, but one glance at the injury report shows he may be forced into a large role regardless of the Raiders’ plans.
Las Vegas is beaten up at cornerback with neither No. 1 corner Trayvon Mullen nor top reserve Keisean Nixon having practiced most of the week. Mullen is expected to play, according to Gruden, but he followed a similar trajectory last week when his hamstring injury flared up early against the Chargers and caused him to miss the rest of the game.
Whether Arnette immediately reclaims his starting role opposite Mullen or replaces him out of necessity, the 24-year-old won’t lack for confidence.
“He’s got a lot of swagger about him, he’s not scared,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s an A-type personality, which I love to coach. We need as many of those guys as we can get.”
The Raiders have always been attracted to Arnette’s mentality, as General Manager Mike Mayock and Gruden referenced it as a primary reason why they used the No. 19 overall pick on him in April. Arnette was likely the biggest surprise selection of the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, but at least to the Raiders, he quickly lived up to their scouting.
The Ohio State product wasn’t promised a starting role and instead thrust into a training-camp position battle, which he won over the likes of Nixon, Nevin Lawson, Isaiah Johnson and Prince Amukamara. He was often the center of attention at practice and not only for his ability to bat away passes but also lifting the mood with constant chatter and energy.
“This is the most fun I’ve had playing football my whole life,” Arnette said in his only media availability of the year in September. “I don’t have to worry about anything else other than football. No extra luggage, no baggage. I can just worry about being the best player and teammate and player for my teammates and coaches.”
But there was one thing holding him back from being his best — a broken thumb suffered going into a Week 1 game against the Panthers. Instead of immediately undergoing surgery, Arnette opted to play with a cast over his hand for the second straight year as he also put off repairing a broken wrist in his senior season at Ohio State.
In the first two weeks of this season, he sometimes experienced sudden jolts of pain and would come off the field for series at a time but he mostly played through the setback. That became impossible when he re-aggravated it against the Patriots, leading to surgery and a stint on injured reserve.
Lawson replaced him, and although the sixth-year veteran has played well in spurts, he’s routinely been targeted by opposing quarterbacks. Lawson’s Pro Football Focus grade is also slightly below Arnette’s for the season despite the latter having never played at 100 percent.
Arnette was by no means a standout in his first three games, and his most notable play remains biting on a double-move and allowing Robby Anderson to score a 75-yard touchdown against the Panthers. In total, the rookie has allowed nine receptions on 11 targets this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Raiders haven’t seen anything to dispute their belief that Arnette can be a key contributor for years to come though. He shows the attitude the organization wants on a daily basis with hopes that the play is soon to follow.
“He’s a fun guy to be around,” Guenther said.
“Hopefully he’ll go out and play at a high level this weekend.”