NAPA, Calif. — When the Oakland Raiders traded a third-round pick to Pittsburgh for wide receiver Martavis Bryant, they knew what they were getting.
While Bryant is exceptionally talented — he’s averaged 15.2 yards per catch in three full seasons — he has also been troubled, missing the entire 2016 season due to multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. Before training camp, there were reports that he could be suspended again. Still, the price of a third-round pick was worth the upside.
With a versatile receiving room around him — including Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson, Ryan Switzer and Seth Roberts — Bryant had little room for error. After missing a practice earlier this week due to illness, and not putting any true game-breaking plays on tape through the first nine days, head coach Jon Gruden was decidedly unhappy with Bryant.
“He’s got to get out here and play better,” Gruden said after a no-pads practice on Saturday. “He’s got to get out here. He’s in a competitive situation, and right now, a lot of the other receivers have had a nice camp.”
Bryant was acquired to be a threat to score from anywhere on the field — both outside and inside — and someone to keep safeties honest to open up the middle for Switzer, Cooper and the tight ends. Each of the receivers, Cooper has said, has had to learn all of the positions in order for the new playbook to be most effective.
“I’m not saying he’s behind. I’m just saying he’s got to be more versatile,” Gruden said. “I’m not going to say any more than that. He’s in a competitive situation. Nothing’s going to be given to anybody. Doesn’t matter how you got here or what your history card says. We need everybody to understand that the best players are going to play, and he’s got to be more consistent. I’m confident he will.”
So far, Cooper has been as expected — Oakland’s top threat on the outside — while the 33-year old Nelson has seemed ageless. Switzer — with his quickness out of the slot — and rookie Marcell Ateman — with his impressive vertical leaping ability and hands — have had very impressive camps, and Dwayne Harris is likely to make the roster because of his ability to make contributions on special teams. He made an impressive one-handed catch on a high throw by E.J. Manuel, rolling left. Rookie Saeed Blacknall, too, was mentioned by Gruden as a receiver he liked through the first half of camp. That puts Bryant — who has caught 126 balls for 1,917 yards and 17 touchdowns in his career — in a pinch.
“He’s just got to learn the offense,” Gruden said. “He’s got to stay out here. He’s had some illnesses, he’s got to get on the field, he’s got to master the offense and become more versatile. That’s key to making this team better.”
There are seven practices left in camp before Oakland returns to Alameda for the remainder of the preseason.
Gruden on rookie tackle Kolton Miller’s improvement from the first day of camp until now: “Unbelievable. Not only is he having to block some really good players. He has to adjust on the fly a lot because we’re changing speeds, were’ going no huddle, we’re changing plays at the line of scrimmage. It’s not an easy thing to do, but he’s done an excellent job.”
By way of an observational note, Miller has progressively done better and better against an onslaught of Bruce Irvin and Arden Key this camp. He struggled to win reps early against their athleticism, but now he’s learning, and is able to fend off their best moves.
— Following the release of Giorgio Tavecchio on Friday, Eddy Piñeiro went 5-of-6 on field goals Saturday, with his only miss coming from 50 yards. He hit his next one from the same spot. Asked why the Raiders parted ways with Tavecchio, the starter last season after Sebastian Janikowski went down with injury, Gruden said it came down to simplicity.
“I think the young kid (Piñeiro) is really kicking the ball well and it’s hard to get a right footed kicker and a left footed kicker and the holder in the operation tight enough,” Gruden said.
Signing veteran righty Mike Nugent gives Oakland a pair of right-footed kickers for the first time since before Al Davis drafted Janikowski out of Florida State. Nugent kicked for Raiders special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia last season in Dallas.
“Nugent is a guy we think we have a lot of familiarity with,” Gruden said. “I just think that the two right-handed kickers is going to help the operation. The snapper, nobody talks about the snap and hold. Everyone thinks it’s all the kicker. The operation will be much better. Tavecchio is a good kicker and we wanted to see if he could catch on with another team. We appreciate Giorgio. He’s a pro. He did a lot of great things for us. We have a battle still at the kicking position.”
— Up to 15 players took Saturday’s Family Day practice off, Gruden said, in order to give younger players a chance to shine, and Ateman certainly did, sliding to his knees over the middle to haul in a low pass from Connor Cook.
— Tight end Derek Carrier — who took a licking from Marquel Lee on Monday and left practice — once again took a pop on Saturday. On the first play of 7-on-7 work, cornerback Shareece Wright caught him in the chest. He went to the ground, collected himself, and arose. Derek Carr went right back to him on the next play, and he made the grab on the opposite sideline.
— Cornerback Gareon Conley is making strides towards returning from a hip injury suffered during his impressive first day of camp. That said, it’s unlikely he’ll play in the first preseason game on Aug. 10 against the Detroit Lions.
“I saw him out here yesterday in the walk thru,” Gruden said. “I was really encouraged by that. You just keep that timetable as is, it’ll be a couple of weeks. We’ll see what happens. We’ll update you when we know something, but he was out here at the walk thru and that’s a real good sign, yesterday.”
— Right guard Gabe Jackson was one of the players who was not on the field practicing on Saturday, but he had missed the previous two practices, as well, with an undisclosed injury. Gruden said he’d been “knocked around,” but would be back on Monday. In the meantime, he’d been pleased with backup Jon Feliciano, who has also played center.
“Gabe is going to be fine, but we sure need him,” Gruden said.
The starting inside trio of Jackson, Rodney Hudson and Kelechi Osemele is going to be tough to crack, Gruden said, but Feliciano is a guy the Raiders are comfortable with taking over at any of the interior spots. Jordan Simmons, too, has “stepped up inside” for Oakland.
— Safety Erik Harris (finger surgery) should be back on Monday.
— Left tackle Donald Penn is “getting close” to returning, but there has been no thought about moving Miller to the right side.
“Not yet,” Gruden said. “Donald Penn is going to have to come back out on the field here and obviously get himself going. It’ll take a little time. We love what Kolton Miller is doing. We’ll address that situation when it happens, but it’s a good situation to have.”