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Live from Napa: New faces in secondary know how to lead Raiders to contention

Sean Smith takes the secondary under his expansive wing, play-by-play man Greg Papa sizes up Derek Carr and more notes from optimism-rich Raiders camp.

NAPA, Calif. — Half an hour after practice ended, the Raiders’ p.r. staff sat me down in a shaded corner of the media tent with Sean Smith, arguably the team’s most important free-agent pickup. The highly regarded eight-year veteran gives Oakland a true shutdown cornerback and an incalculable upgrade in a secondary that was the Raiders’ biggest liability last season.

Looking for Smith on the field earlier, I thought there might be a typo in the roster. At certain angles, No. 21 looked like an outside linebacker. Nope. At 6' 3" and 218 pounds, he fits nicely into a Raider tradition of long, physical bump-and-run corners. (There was Hall of Famer Willie Brown, 75, counseling the defensive backs on the field Monday.)

“He has such a wide radius and such long arms, that if he gets his hands on you, he’s got a chance to take you out of the play,” says Oakland defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson. “Because most quarterbacks won’t wait to see if [the smothered receiver] can win. They’ve got that clock in their head.”

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Smith was all smiles Monday. He’ll play corner opposite David Amerson, another rangy DB (6' 1", 205) who defibrillated his career last season. Cut by Washington on Sept. 21, the former second-round pick was snatched up by the Raiders, who quickly plugged him in as a starter. Finding consistency and an edge he’d lacked in D.C., Amerson was Oakland’s best corner in 2015. Behind Smith and Amerson will be nine-year veteran Reggie Nelson, coming off an eight-interception season with Bengals that earned him a two-year, $12 million deal in Oakland. He’ll groom Karl Joseph, the safety Oakland took with the No. 14 pick in last spring’s draft. Serious, sober people have already started comparing this kid to Earl Thomas. Oft-injured, disappointing D.J. Hayden is starting at the slot corner position in his make-or-break season. Early reviews are guarded, but generally good.

That’s five new starters in the secondary from Week 1 a year ago. Is the unit cohering?

“To be honest with you, it’s been going great, going back to OTAs,” says Smith, “From the outside looking in, you’d hear things and figure, ‘They must not be that good in the secondary.’ You get here, you meet these guys, and you realize this [secondary] is loaded with talent. It’s just that they were inexperienced. They had to go through their growing pains.”

Smith has taken pleasure in sharing his knowledge, “just teaching ’em some simple things that can make life so much easier.” One level behind him, fellow graybeard Nelson is schooling the safeties, promising undrafted rookie Chris Edwards in particular.

Smith expands on an example of such a tip: “Well, wide receiver splits—where a guy lines up in relation to the numbers. A receiver has a plus-three yard split outside the numbers, he can’t run every route on the route tree. When he’s out that wide, you can erase half the routes. If he’s condensed, now you’re thinking these routes. You don’t have to cover the whole route tree, so stop stressing. Make the game simple! Small things like that.”

Long after the allotted interview time had ended, Smith stayed rooted in his chair, sipping a sports drink. His family is from Pasadena; his brother is passionate Raiders fan, who was “in my ear a lot” during free agency, urging him to join the Silver and Black.

“Can’t beat this weather,” he remarked. The afternoon was sunny but pleasant, a cooling breeze coming off the Mayacamas Mountains, which divide Napa and Sonoma Counties. Smith is genuinely happy to be here, but not as happy as Raiders fans are to see him.

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Other training camp observations

• Speaking of Raiders fans, a strong crowd attended Monday’s practice. They saw brief fisticuffs between cornerback Kenneth Durden and wide out Johnny Holton. They saw Khalil Mack put a nice pop on fellow edge rusher Bruce Irvin, the free agent signee from Seattle, in defensive drill. When the equipment guys pulled the narrow uprights onto the field at the end of practice, they saw free agent Giorgio Tavecchio outkick stolid 17-year veteran Sebastian Janikowski.

The Hintons from Livermore, Calif., may have missed a few of the first minutes of practice. They were in the lobby of the Napa Valley Marriott, getting some food into one-year-old Maverick, whose handsome features were slightly obscured by his Raiders ballcap. His father, Isaiah—whose mohawk ruled out a ballcap—explained to me that his son was named after Al Davis: “People would describe Al as an outlaw, and he’d take offense. He’d say, ‘I’m not an outlaw, but I am a maverick.’”

• Raiders owner Mark Davis, with whom I exchanged a friendly hello on the field after practice, may not be the maverick his father was. But he’s more patient than Al was. And that patience is paying off. Very few people would’ve blamed Davis for firing GM Reggie McKenzie after Oakland slid from consecutive 12-loss seasons down to 3–13 in 2014. Davis stayed the course and has been vindicated. McKenzie has enjoyed several strong drafts—quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper and Mack may be the most talented young trio on any NFL team—and Davis rewarded him last Friday with a four-year contract extension.

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• After practice, a woman conducted a clinic with several daughters of assistant offensive line coach Tim Holt: NHRA driver Leah Pritchett, who had raced her Mopar/Pennzoil Top Fuel dragster over the weekend at the Sonoma Nationals. She was a guest at Raiders practice along with two-time world champion Cruz Pedregon, driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car.

Pritchett, who is from Redlands, Calif., says she had long been partial to the Chargers, “until I got older and started to understand the different cultures of the teams.” At that point, she gravitated toward the Raiders. Their commitment to excellence “was very attractive” to her, as was the team’s “rebellious” reputation.

Pedregon hails from Torrance, Calif. For a while, he had his beloved Raiders in Southern California, although, he says, “I liked ‘em during the Ken Stabler days, the Jim Plunkett days, when they were in Oakland.”

His draw to the club transcends geography. He sees himself as the Raiders of Funny Car racing: “I’m a bit of an outcast, I kinda do things my own way. What I liked about the Raiders in the ’80s was that they had all these misfits. But they were also good players, and when you put ’em together, they won.”

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Five questions with Greg Papa

Papa is a fixture in Bay Area media and the superb play-by-play voice of the Raiders. He also has an NFL assistant coach’s grasp of the game. It’s kind of daunting.

Q1: How optimistic should Raiders fans be about the revamped secondary?

GP: They did bring a lot of new pieces into the secondary. Typically when you bring in a lot of new people, it doesn’t always work right away. But I think in this situation what they want is big corners. David Amerson is a big corner. They had him last year and liked him well enough to give him a lengthy deal. Sean Smith we know well. He was a heck of a player when he was young in Miami, tremendous press corner. We learned more about him when he was in Kansas City. His movement skills aren’t quite what they were when he was younger, but he’s smart.

The bottom line in this league is you’ve gotta have size at corner to combat the size of these wide receivers. Randy Moss changed football. And the receivers the Raiders have to shut down in the AFC West are big men. Demaryius Thomas is a big man. Emanuel Sanders, even though he’s fast and in the slot a lot, is a big man. Keenan Allen in San Diego’s a big man. Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City. You’ve gotta have size to combat size.

Q2: D.J. Hayden is not a big man. He’s been installed at slot and had a couple good days of practice. Does this story have a happy ending for him?

GP: I don’t know. You need to find out who he is as a high draft pick. I think initially going into it, you plug him into that slot. I think T.J. Carrie could also do it. I thought he was our best inside corner last year. It’s a different skill set. D.J. struggled a little last year because they asked him to play outside and inside, and his technique was confusing: Was he in or out? So they tried to simplify it, and just keep him out, and move T.J. in. Now [D.J.] is just going to be in. But teams are smart, they’ll motion people, they’ll stack receivers, they’ll bubble it, they’ll bunch it, they’ll make you do other things. So D.J.’s gotta perform now. They did not pick up the fifth year [of his rookie contract], so he’s at a crossroads in his career.

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Q3: Reggie McKenzie just got his contract extended. How deserving is he?

GP: He’s had some tremendous drafts. Everyone points to Khalil and Derek, but Gabe Jackson [third-rounder in ’14] is a terrific player, who they’re asking a lot of. They’re gonna move him from left guard to right guard to insert [free agent pickup] Kelechi Osemele at left guard. I didn’t think they’d ask a young guy to make that move, but this shows you what they think of him. He’s a very good pulling guard and a great talent.

So Reggie’s had good drafts upon good drafts. What this extension means to me is the solidarity in the front office. Reggie’s first head coach was Dennis Allen, and that didn’t go well. Mark [Davis] had more of a hand in hiring Jack Del Rio, and the fact that after one year with Jack, they’re giving Reggie a four-year extension, is making the statement that they’re getting along. It happens in sports where that relationship [between coach and GM] isn’t great. Look at [Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh]. You don’t always have to get along, but it makes life a lot easier. So to me, it speaks to the harmony that Jack and his staff have with the front office and personnel department.

It also speaks to the patience of the owner. Mark’s greatest skill is his patience. His old man didn’t have that kind of patience. After you put those young pieces in, you gotta let it cook for three, four years, and it takes awhile.

People talk about this team winning the AFC West, doing all these great things, but it may take more time. This recipe may call for a little more seasoning. But they’re gonna have time.

Q4: What’s your gut on the Raiders chances to win the division, or get to the postseason?

GP: Well, Kansas City’s a good team. Denver, as far as I know, won the Super Bowl, and I know they’ve had a lot of losses, but they’ve got some players. This is still a young team. What kind of strides can they make? It’s still a young quarterback. Amari Cooper’s a young, young player, but he can still grow in so many ways.

They should get there, but it doesn’t always happen. … You think you have the right pieces, but there are no guarantees in sports. You still gotta go out Sunday and play the games. I don’t know. The first game’s gonna be a challenge. Going on the road to New Orleans—that’s gonna be a hard game.

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Q5: On the subject of Carr, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about him, but he has made some bad throws in the red zone, some odd decisions here and there. How far does he still have to go?

GP: Derek can make any throw, run any offense. If you wanted to put him under center and hand it off, if you wanted to run Gary Kubiak’s outside zone stretch run game, if you want him go no-huddle, if you want him to throw bubbles, shorts, screen passes, posts, deep stuff, Derek Carr can make any throw in any offense. His skill set is universal. There’s not a weakness to him as a player. He needs to, at times, read the field better as a player. People hate this term, but Denver won the Super Bowl last year with a quarterback who had no legs, and another young guy who never played. Because they knew how to manage the game.

Look at the two home games against Denver and Kansas City, the teams the Raiders have to beat out. They could’ve won both those games, and [Carr] threw a critical pick-six in the Denver game that flipped that game. Now it wasn’t all his fault—double-crossing routes on inside receivers with Amari and Seth Roberts—but the ball got intercepted and run back the other way and you lost the game.

Kansas City, you’re up six, driving for a field goal to go up two scores, he tries to keep a play alive way too long, they turn it over, Chiefs run it back to the one. He throws another pick that gets run back, and another after that. He threw three. You’ve got to know when to be O.K. with a par and not go for birdie. If the defense is what we think it could be, we don’t need that. Punt the ball.

I think overall with Derek, it’s when to eat it, when to take a sack, when to scramble out of bounds. He has every skill, he’s great guy, hard worker, good teammate, but you gotta figure out how to manage the golf course. It doesn’t matter if throws for 300 yards and wins fantasy drafts for people all over the country. At the end of the game the Raiders need to have more points.