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Camp Preview: Khalil Mack is priority one as the Oakland Raiders ready to open training camp

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Khalil Mack (52), shown here in 2016, could have headed to San Francisco. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The first real step in Jon Gruden’s coaching campaign for the Oakland Raiders begins July 26 in Napa, when 90 players report for the first day of training camp.

Every way Gruden runs camp will be monitored closely, from the way he interacts with Derek Carr to the pace of his practices, but that’s the type of scrutiny you get when you sign a 10-year, $100 million contract after being in the broadcast booth for the past decade.

Gruden will have to manage a roster filled with question marks after a letdown 6-10 season. Here’s some things to keep an eye on as the hype of Gruden’s return fades into reality when the 2018 NFL season gets underway with the start of training camp:

Bring the Brinks Truck for the Mack Truck: Franchise cornerstone Khalil Mack is heading into a contract year and wants a new contract, and the Raiders need to give him whatever he wants. It’s as simple as that.

Mack is one of the best players to don the silver and black in the past decade, and deserves whatever contract terms he desires to stay in Oakland for the prime of his career. If he doesn’t report due to contract issues, a massive cloud will descend on Raiders camp.

The question is: Has Oakland learned from Donald Penn’s hold out last season? Penn missed the start of training camp and failed to return to his Pro Bowl form once the season began. Mack is a different caliber player than Penn, but still, having one the best players in the entire league hold out from training camp is never a good thing for a franchise trying to make a return to the playoffs. Extending Mack needs to be Priority One for Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie.

A New Cast of Characters: The Raiders overhauled their skill positions this offseason, adding veterans Jordy Nelson, Doug Martin and Dwayne Harris, while trading for Martavis Bryant and Ryan Switzer. Carr and Gruden now have a skilled — but crowded — group of athletes to play with.

How Gruden manages snaps and who lines up where will be something to watch. With the loss of Michael Crabtree and the lack of production from Seth Roberts, a move to the inside might be what Amari Cooper and the Raiders need, given that Nelson and Bryant have both spent the vast majority of their careers on the outside.

If they continue to be outside threats, Cooper — who has shown the skillset to make him a quality slot threat dating back to his time at Alabama — could shift to the slot.

That leaves Switzer, Harris, Roberts, Johnny Holten and rookie Marcell Ateman vying for the Raiders final two receiver spots. That’s a position battle to monitor.

Beast Mode Round 2: Marshawn Lynch decided to return to Oakland for the final year of his contract after the Raiders inked the aforementioned Martin. This makes for a very crowded backfield in Oakland with the tandem of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard still in play.

Washington and Richard each showed flashes and will again battle each other for snaps. It will be a surprise if Lynch isn’t dubbed the lead back after restructuring his contract for a more incentive based deal, but where does this leave Martin? Martin is three years younger than Lynch, but they both have a similar running style. The Raiders wasted no time in signing Martin, making him one of the first signings of free agency, so there is no doubt they have a plan for him on this team, but where is the question. Martin will have to make a serious impact in camp to uproot Beast Mode.

Cable Guy: Another offensive storyline to follow will be the return of polarizing offensive line coach Tom Cable. Cable has no small task ahead of him, inheriting one of the most expensive and underwhelming offensive lines in all of football.

Cable will have to manage a cast of veterans who underperformed last season, while developing two of the first three Raiders draft picks, including No. 15 overall pick Kolten Miller. Miller should compete with Breno Giacomini, Vadal Alexander and fellow rookie Brandon Parker. Cable will have a lot on his plate for a coach who was recently fired from Seattle for having one of the worst offensive line units in all of football.

Bringing a Pass Rush: This training camp will see the debut of defensive line standouts Arden Key and Maurice Hurst. Each have question marks — Hurst’s health and Key’s attitude — but if they’re healthy and play with a clear head on their shoulders, they could each provide a serious burst to the defense and even compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year. They are that skilled. 

Other camp battles to monitor up front: Who will start opposite Justin Ellis at defensive tackle — Eddie Vanderdoes or second-round pick P.J. Hall? Hurst, if healthy, provides the most upside, but if he doesn’t get enough reps in camp he could easily fall behind Vanderdoes and Hall on the depth chart.

The Last Linebacker: The Raiders brought in veterans Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson, but who will fill out Oakland’s last starting linebacker spot? After a few solid performances to round out last season, Nicholas Morrow should have the first opportunity to play alongside Johnson and Whitehead, but if he doesn’t make a quick impression on new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Morrow will have Emmanuel Lamur, Azeem Victor and Marquel Lee on his heels for snaps.

The Italian Stallion: Lastly, the most entertaining camp battle could very well come from the kicker position. Fan favorite Giorgio Tavecchio — a Cal alumnus and product of Moraga-Campolindo — had a solid season for the Raiders in 2017-18, but that didn’t stop the Raiders from bringing in some competition.

The Raiders signed decorated Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro, who was expected by many to be the first kicker taken in April’s draft, but instead the Raiders land him as an undrafted free agent. Kicker battles are one of the more fun things to watch in camp from a spectator’s point of view. The kickers usually kick from great lengths on a goalpost about the half the size of a normal goalpost, with the whole team whooping and hollering in their face. A must-see for anyone heading to training camp.

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