While the majority of Jon Gruden’s conversations on Tuesday were lighthearted and full of smiles, laughter and the patented trolling, when the Oakland Raiders head honcho’s face changed, and his tone entered the realm of seriousness, it was time to listen up.
Two occasions in particular stood out as Gruden asked a variety of questions asked of him during the coaches’ breakfast at the NFL owner’s meeting in Phoenix. And the pair were, not surprisingly, defense-related.
Gruden didn’t mince words when it came to Arden Key (the lone pass-rushing defensive end on the roster) and others.
“I want to see Arden Key play better,” the head coach said in a no-BS tone. “I want to see our second-year players play better. They got to play a lot last year – big deal. I want to see them play great this year. I’ll start the conversation right there.”
Raiders general manager Mike Mayock made light of the team’s situation at defensive end remarking Gruden jokes “It’s just Arden and me” at the position. While true – the Raiders did ink free agent defensive lineman Josh Mauro who can play end and tackle – Gruden doesn’t find it a humorous situation.
“Arden has to get stronger and has to play better,” Gruden said. “They don’t grow on trees. These defensive ends don’t grow on trees – I know that. And I’ve been criticized trading one of the best.
“But I’ve always felt second-year players show the most improvement. And I’m counting on that happening with (Maurice) Hurst. I think he’s a legitimate three-technique. He’s got potential to be an every-down and a good one. And he’s gotta prove it.”
The Raiders defense under Paul Guenther as a whole has to prove it can keep up and stymie offenses in the NFL. As does the front office that is in charge of getting Guenther quality ingredients to cook up a competent defense.
Mayock and Gruden went hard on reinforcing Guenther’s secondary with the signings of versatile defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Nevin Lawson in free agency. Oakland isn’t anywhere close to putting more bodies in the defensive backs room, apparently.
“We’re still looking,” Gruden said. “I think you gotta have five corners. They do get banged up and it’s a hard position to play.”
Gruden even dropped nuggets on Gareon Conley being nicked-up in the latte portion of the 2018 season and what both Lawson and Joyner bring to the table.
“Obviously, getting Gareon Conley healthy and playing to his potential is priority No. 1,” Gruden began, “We need 16 weeks from Gareon. He flickered some last year and didn’t finish healthy. Lawson has been healthy, he doesn’t miss any action.
“When I was in Tampa, I coached a guy named Ronde Barber. He might have been my favorite player I ever coached. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest guy, but when he put a helmet on, something happened to that guy. Joyner is the closest thing I’ve seen to Ronde as a slot corner. His ability in the slot is rare. He’s a guy that came in and replaced a nickel linebacker. And he can hit you like a linebacker, now. I have so much respect for him and can’t wait to coach him, I tell ya.”