Wednesday, June 2, 2021 | 2 a.m.
In mid-April, players from the Raiders were among a group of at least 20 other NFL teams that came together and voted against participating in voluntary, offseason organized team activities.
The team discussion that led to that decision was well-publicized as part of the NFL Players Association urging players to boycott in-person workouts. A subsequent meeting a couple of days later where the Raiders more or less reversed their decision remained a secret until last week.
“We were like listen, ‘Other teams are working, we are at a competitive disadvantage if we’re not working,” guard Richie Incognito explained. “Let’s get our a—- back there and get to work.”
Nearly the Raiders’ entire 90-man roster was on the field for a practice open to media last Wednesday at the team’s Henderson headquarters on the second day of the NFL’s Phase 3 of OTAs. Attendance shouldn’t wane today when Las Vegas takes the field for another open practice today.
One more week of Phase 3 OTAs will follow before a mandatory minicamp running June 15-17 that serves as final preparations until training camp begins in July.
“Being in the building is enormous, just being around the guys,” defensive end Maxx Crosby said. “The football part is very important, learning the new system, things of that nature, but I think having that relationship off the field is what helps us on Sundays. Last year, I feel like that was a big struggle for us. A lot of guys are new coming in and just trying to learn and fit in, but now, we really have some time to really meet each other, get to know each other and be on the same page.”
All in-person offseason activities were scrubbed from the calendar last year as the league figured out how to operate among the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may have made for a steeper learning curve for players coming to new teams, such as since-departed defensive tackle Maliek Collins who disappointed after signing a one-year deal with Las Vegas last season.
The defensive line underwent another makeover this offseason, and contradicting Crosby’s statement of getting to know new teammates, the unit might have been the least-represented at last week’s practice. A pair of prized free-agent signings, edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson, were among the small group of missing players.
Aside from running back Josh Jacobs, their absences were perhaps the most notable.
“Obviously, we want him here and he’s going to be here very soon,” Crosby said of Ngakoue. “I can’t wait to get out there and play with him.”
Current practices are helmets only and may not contain any live contact, though 11-on-11 play is permitted. But most of the time is spent with position groups separated and running through their own drills.
“It’s great for team-building, great to be around the guys,” Incognito said. “Coach (Jon) Gruden is taking good care of us as far as walkthroughs and keeping things downtempo, but it was important for us.”
Last week’s session didn’t seem very downtempo, as the players worked at roughly the same pace and energy as a non-padded practice during the season. The team DJ was providing music as temperatures heated up in the mid-morning and coaches raised their voices to cut above the thumping bass and give instruction.
“A lot of people think it’s just Xs and Os and that’s probably the last little bit of it,” safety Johnathan Abram said. “It’s about coming together, being with your brothers every single day. Just going out there and putting it on the line for one another. If you don’t have that chance to bond with guys, then you don’t have that brotherhood and guys don’t really play for each other. So that’s kind of what you saw all last year.”
The Raiders are determined not to fall behind any of their opponents as they look to post a record better than .500 for the first time in Gruden’s second tenure this upcoming season. They weren’t the only team to break the OTA boycott, as it seems several across the league have done the same but few saw as many players report as the Raiders.
The players may not regret their initial decision to stand with the Players Association, but felt like this is what they needed to do to give themselves the best shot next season.
“I think it’s a competitive advantage for us to be here working right now,” Incognito said.