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Raiders new locker room dynamic presents tough test for team leadership

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NFL: Oakland Raiders-OTA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With a decision looming from HBO on who will be featured in this summer’s Hard Knocks series, the Raiders are making it difficult not to be the team chosen.

With a cast that already includes Jon Gruden, Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict, and now Richie Incognito there won’t be a shortage of storylines.

But beyond the possibility of Hard Knocks, is the reality of what is forming inside the Raiders locker room. Since Mike Mayock has taken over as general manager there has been a complete overhaul of the roster with a strong emphasis on what Mayock calls “foundational” players. Players that he believes have high character, leadership skills, and love the game of football.

However, Mayock is putting out more mixed signals than the girls I use to date in college.

This year’s draft class fits the bill with players like Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abrams, Maxx Crosby, and Hunter Renfrow who embody high character and leadership. On the other hand the Raiders have added three players with baggage to say the least.

There’s no questioning the Antonio Brown’s work ethic and how well he has carried himself in his short time with the Raiders but his final season in Pittsburgh was filled with drama between him and future Hall of fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Things fell apart to the point where shipping Brown out was the only option.

Vontaze Burfict is the NFL most fined player, racking up over $415,000 worth of fines since he has entered the league in 2012. Many of those fines were for personal foul penalties earning him the reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league. One such instance was the 2016 playoff game between the Steelers and Bengals when Burfict’s vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on now teammate Antonio Brown, earned him a three game suspension, nearly $70,000 in fines, and cost his team the game.

And if you thought the locker room still lacked some attitude Mayock and Gruden decided to sign Richie Incognito earlier this week. Incognito has a long track record of character issues dating back to his days at Nebraska and most recently in the summer of 2018 when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct for two separate incidents. One in which he threatened to shoot everyone at a funeral home and one in that involved destruction of property at his 90-year-old grandmother’s house. And those are just the most recent.

Mayock defended the move by saying, “you can’t have all boy scouts.”

How this all works out behind the scenes is yet to be determined. With the mix of incoming rookies and troubled veterans there is a common denominator, they will all need leadership and guidance to help them.

Jon Gruden will have his work cut out for him trying to manage all the personalities in the locker room. He will need his veteran players to fully embrace leadership roles.

Quarterback Derek Carr is the unquestioned leader of this team, he will have his hands full keeping this group on the straight and narrow should the Raiders stumble out of the gate. That also means keeping Antonio Brown happy and their relationship strong. Unlike in Pittsburgh, Brown will not have to worry about being thrown under the bus by his quarterback.

This team will rely heavily on its rookies who in turn will require mentors in place to teach them how to be professionals.

Adding veteran defensive back Lamarcus Joyner he will help the rookie defensive backs tremendously. The team used three of their first six picks on defensive backs so that will be key.

One of their first round picks was spent on running back Josh Jacobs. Doug Martin was re-signed soon thereafter and was assigned mentor duties for the young back with whom he’ll share a backfield. Martin is embracing the role and hopes to ease Josh Jacobs transition into the NFL.

“Josh Jacobs, he’s a good kid with good character,” Martin said after the first OTA practice. “You all heard his story, I read up on it myself. I commend him for being as strong as he is, and that being said I came here to mentor, push him, show him that I’ve been in the league eight years, so I am a vet now. I can’t believe it, but that’s the case and so I’m here to just be that role model for him.”

This leaves the two dirty players and how to keep them from being more of a problem than a solution.

Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther coached Burfict for seven season in Cincinnati. Guenther was the one who pounded the table to bring in Burfict when he became a free agent. He will be leaned on heavily to keep Burfict’s actions in check.

According to Mike Mayock there is a plan in place to help keep Incognito on the right track.

“We brought him in, we talked to Richie, we told Richie what we expect both on and off the field and we expect him to adhere to that. We’re going to meet with our player engagement people after practice, we’ve got our clinician coming in tomorrow and I’m not going into any more of that than to say the infrastructure will be here for him to use.”

Where the organizational structure Mayock put in place falls short, arguably the most respected veteran on the team will be right beside Incognito on the line with Rodney Hudson at center.

No question getting this Raiders team headed in the right direction will require an ‘all hands on deck’ approach.