The best coaches try to cater their game plan to their best players’ strengths. As a coach you try to put them in position to make plays and impact the game. Typically those kinds of tweaks are reserved for the most talented players.
The Raiders’ defense is currently in the process of finding their best players. They are looking for outspoken leaders and foundation players. Early returns from training camp has Johnathan Abram with a commanding lead in the outspoken department.
The rookie 27th overall pick safety has quickly earned a reputation as a talker. Uncharacteristic so for a rookie in his first training camp.
For his part, his play on the field is just as aggressive as his words. He is eager and hungry. And he’s a thumper. Making it hard for him to abide by the strict CBA rules that don’t allow for pads throughout the offseason when he wanted to get to hitting.
We’ve now had two days of hitting at training camp and Abram is way past ready for it. He’s already earned a nickname — given to him by Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia — along with the respect of his teammates.
“Oh, Bulldog? Yeah, bulldog has been great. Bulldog been great,” said fellow rookie top pick Clelin Ferrell. “He don’t take no stuff from nobody. He’s not afraid to speak his mind even though some of it be crazy coming out of his mouth, but it’s been real good.”
No player on this defense is more known for their hard-hitting than veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict — even to the point of crossing the line quite often and earning flags, fines, and suspensions. Abram reminds him a lot of himself.
“He talks a little bit more than me though. Sometimes we got to tell him to shut up in the huddle but other than that, yeah, he backs it up,” Burfict said of Abram. “So, you can talk as much as you want as long as you back it up.”
Knowing what kind of player Burfict is, it says a lot that even he has to tell Abram to cool it sometimes.
“Abram is so aggressive, sometimes I have to tell him like, ‘hey you’ve got to hold it back a little bit, you know, we’re on the same team,’” said Burfict. “He keeps ragging when the Rams come in he doesn’t care. So, you know, he’s young, he’s talented, aggressive, and I can’t wait to see him play on Sundays.”
Jon Gruden has raved about Abram since they drafted him and throughout the offseason. But he is finding it a chore to rein in the overzealous rookie.
“That kid’s something else,” Gruden said after Tuesday’s camp practice. “I don’t want to make comparisons but he’s what we’re looking for. He’s a versatile guy that gives us so much energy on defense. And we have tried to control him. He’s hitting too many of our guys in shorts. He even hit some coaches the other day by accident.”
Abram downplays the idea that he is going too hard after his own teammates, saying he’s “not out here trying to kill nobody,” adding that he’s “just trying to make a couple plays on the ball just like [the other guy] is.”
Abram also sees the similarities to his approach and Burfict’s. That comparison is a double edged sword Abram must be careful with.
“Because he’s a violent hitter. That’s the rep I get,” Abram said of he and Burfict. “But there’s more to it than that. I’m a hot head at times but that’s the one thing we talk about; controlling my emotions, being passionate not emotional.”
Talking and hitting wasn’t going to earn Abram a spot with the first team; a spot he took by the end of OTA’s. He had to be a fast learner for that.
Returning safety Erik Harris had been lining up with the first team for much of the offseason and he is a very intelligent player in his own rite. Abram had to show Jon Gruden and Paul Guenther that he had picked up the playbook before he stepped in with the first team.
It’s a credit to Abram’s intelligence that he was able to get on the field, but it’s more than that. Paul Guenther has tweaked his defense scheme to cater to his and Karl Joseph’s aggressive styles. And you can add Erik Harris to that as well.
There’s plenty of reason to be excited when it comes to Abram. He has all the intangibles. The intelligence, the passion, the leadership, and the raw talent. He doesn’t believe in the concept of being a rookie. He sees himself as a “first year player” instead.
Whatever you want to call it, he still has a lot to learn to refine all his hair-on-fire abilities at the NFL level. Most importantly, to keep them within the NFL rulebooks. If he can, watch out. Either way, watch out. He’s coming. And not quietly.