Oakland Raiders: Without Donald Penn and Khalil Mack, Kolton Miller and Bruce Irvin shine

NAPA — The last time Derek Carr saw Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders quarterback was dunking on his defensive lineman during game of pool basketball.

The last time head coach Jon Gruden spoke with the itinerant defender, who has yet to report to camp, was when he first got the job, despite reports to the contrary.

“Is that dramatic, really? Consider what is drama,” Gruden said. “I’ve talked to Khalil. Those guys aren’t always 100 percent accurate. I talked to Mack when I got the job. I just haven’t talked to him lately. Not much to talk about right now, sorry.”

Gruden deferred any questions about the missing Mack to general manager Reggie McKenzie. He has a team to prepare, after all. As training camp opened, the Raiders were without Mack — who was officially placed on the reserve/did not report list — and left tackle Donald Penn, still working back from lis franc surgery, but they did have capable stand-ins. Bruce Irvin wreaked havoc on defense, while rookie tackle Kolton Miller did his level best to stop him.

Miller was the No. 1 left tackle, playing with left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Breno Giacomini.

“He’s blocking a beast over there,” Gruden said. “Bruce Irvin is one of our captains right now and he’s going to test Miller every day.”

Irvin turned in one of five interceptions on the day, with two more breakups coming from the Oakland defense.

“Just to go against Bruce every day – go get the quarterback, you know? He’s playing defensive end, we know that. And for Bruce to do that, it’s scary for opponents,” Carr said. “So for Kolton to see that every day, that’s going to make him work. Bruce has a similar skill set to what Von [Miller] can do and some of the other guys can do in our division, so it’s good for Kolton to see, get a taste of that and try and lock that up as hard as it is.”

Along with Irvin, Arden Key and Gareon Conley each had a breakup, while Tevin Mitchell had a sliding, diving pick on Carr, Obi Melifonwu had pick in 7-on-7, Shaquille Richardson picked off Connor Cook and Marcus Gilchrist had a pick-six to end practice. Frostee Rucker also had a breakup at the line, and Irvin chased Carr out of the pocket to force an incompletion.

“I like our defense,” Gruden said. “Our defensive coordinator [Paul Guenther] is really good. He creates a lot of problems. Bruce Irvin is playing his natural position on an every-down basis and I think he’s a heck of a player. We’ve improved our inside pass rush. We’ve added a veteran presence. Some people don’t like it, but I like Derrick Johnson, I like Marcus Gilchrist, I like guys that know what the heck is going on.”

Gruden — trying to cram as much teaching as he can into shorter sessions, thanks to new practice hour limitations — didn’t appear pleased with some aspects of the offense, but he and Carr have certainly seemed to develop a rapport. This offseason, he kept almost Gruden-like hours, studying in the early mornings, late at night, even sitting by the pool studying.

When Carr wasn’t studying, he was taking running backs, wide receivers and tight ends — those who stayed local — out to various parks for throwing sessions.

“I don’t know if that man sleeps,” Carr said of Gruden. “I don’t know if he’s slept yet. Have to. Him and I have to be on the same page. Him and I have to work the hardest out of anybody out here. If the head coach and the quarterback are the hardest workers, then usually that’s a good recipe.”

The fifth-year quarterback sounded a bit like Gruden as he began to address the media, and at the end, too, as he sounded like he’s started to pick up his coach’s verbiage. It’s not a surprise, given that Carr was among Gruden’s favorite college quarterbacks to ever go through his Gruden QB Camp while at ESPN, and the two have spent a lot of time together, already.

When the two are in Gruden’s office, the volume gets turned up, so much so that passersby have asked why they’re yelling at one another.

“I said, ‘Oh nothing, we were talking about good things,’” Carr said. “He is just energetic all the time. That’s just him. He is so passionate about the game of football. I don’t think anyone can be mad at that. I don’t think anyone can get mad at that. So when he demands from you, when he encourages you, it’s in the same tone every time.”

It was when Carr was under center that the offense hummed the most, especially when he found former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson, who had the best day on offense.

“He’s wired in,” Gruden said. “You can see why he was a security blanket for [Packers QB Aaron] Rodgers all those years. He can still run. He’s proven to us he can still run.”

Nelson, 33, was able to protect a pass by quarterback E.J. Manuel from a pick by Conley, snatching it out in front of him and turning up field for a big gain during 7-on-7. On the first play of 11-on-11, he took a 25-yard slant to the house. With Manuel back under center, Nelson came across the middle on an underneath route for a grab. Later in 11-on-11, Carr hit a deep slant to Nelson for an easy 20 yards.

“The thing that you hear about that he can’t run anymore, that’s false,” Carr said. “I can tell you, he’s one of the fastest skill guys that we have still. He can run. You see that by his route running. If he can win on underneath routes, that means DB’s are scared about what he can do over the top. He’s still Jordy Nelson, that’s for sure.”

Amari Cooper, who came into camp at 223 pounds, also had a good day.

“I feel like he came into his rookie year like 16-years old, so he comes back bigger and faster every year. It’s like ‘Coop’, hey man, chill out a little bit,” Carr said. “Don’t get too big, we’ll move you to running back or something.”

Still, with an eventful opening act to camp, it’s hard not to notice those conspicuous by their absence

Tahir Whitehead — who will face his old team, the Detroit Lions, in the preseason opener — called the Mack situation “above [his] pay grade.” Veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson danced around a question about Mack.

“When we add the other special guy, we’ll be even more special,” he said.


Mack, as well as offensive lineman Vadal Alexander were placed on the reserve/did not report list. On Saturday morning, before their second day of camp, the Raiders reportedly added former Jets, Texans and Seahawks lineman Oday Aboushi, according to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network.

Aboushi worked with offensive line coach Tom Cable in Seattle, where Aboushi started eight games last season.

Martavis Bryant reported to camp without any incident. In late June, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported a potential suspension in the works. He was suspended for the entire 2016 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

If the Raiders take six receivers out of camp, it’s almost certain he’d be among them, along with Ryan Switzer, Seth Roberts, Nelson, Cooper and Dwayne Harris, who also reported, following foot surgery in October of 2017 for a broken fifth metatarsal.

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