ALAMEDA – The Raiders 2014 draft class has experienced significant change in two-plus years as pros. They went through Dennis Allen’s firing, Tony Sparano’s interim leadership and Jack Del Rio’s hiring.
Times were tough early, but Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck were around to lead the way. These respected veterans taught young players how to deal with disappointment, upheaval and, last season, a smidgeon of success.
The Raiders went 7-9 last year and, as that season wound down, Woodson ensured extraordinary edge rusher Khalil Mack would be ready to take the torch. Quarterback Derek Carr is a natural born leader. Mack is a quiet type who had to find his own style.
Woodson tossed him into the fire late last season, asking Mack to deliver pregame speeches. He expressed the importance of leadership by example, especially now that all eyes are on Mack following a 15-sack campaign where he was named an All-Pro at two positions.
“‘C-Wood’ wanted me to prepare and get ready for that role,” Mack said Monday, when the Raiders opened their offseason program. “For me, I’m just taking it day by day and slowly, slowly seeing what happens. The leadership role is definitely in effect at this point.”
Mack carried a specific message into his first 2016 press conference, that winning free agency means the Raiders haven’t won anything yet. Mack was often asked about a bright future ahead featuring high-profile free agents melding with a solid young foundation, and deflected such queries, saying the Raiders are about action.
“It’s easy to get caught in that trap,” Mack said. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about the grind. We’re about working hard, committing ourselves to excellence and going out and winning. That’s what it’s really all about. You can’t focus on those outside things. You have to bring it all tight together and keep it all close and then that’s when the winning starts.”
“When the games start, that’s what we’re looking forward to. We’re looking forward to actually putting it on field and showing this helped and that helped. I can’t really speak on the future. I can’t really speak on what will be, but I know that I want to uphold my end of the bargain in this situation. We have to put in the work, that’s all that I’m focusing on right now.”
Mack is ready to fill an important role on defense, a leadership responsibility Carr assumed after earning the starter’s job his rookie year. He’s a two-year captain, but something felt different starting an offseason without Tuck and Woodson.
“I was sitting there as we were doing some of the testing with the strength and conditioning coaches, and I looked at the roster and thought, ‘There are barely any guys over 30 on this team,’” the 25-year old said. “I sat there and I looked at it and was thought ‘It’s time to really take over.’ Guys like Khalil and myself taking strides in that area last year, but we still had ‘Wood.’ We still had Tuck. We still have Marcel (Reece). He is a Raider. … But when you come in the building and you know ‘Wood’ is not here and Tuck is not here, I feel a little older.
"I don’t know if it’s maturity or just a sense of, having pick up where they left off. I don’t know what it is exactly, but you can definitely feel it.”
These young players knew this day would come, and are ready for it. The 2014 draft class made a pact to turn things around and establish new, winning ways in Oakland. Carr, Mack, Gabe Jackson and Justin Ellis are now established players who are ready to take control of this roster.
It’s odd for players in their mid 20s to be leaders, but the Raiders have just five players over 30 years old – two are specialists – meaning youth is ready to help this team take an expected step forward.
“The pact is holding strong,” Mack said. “You see it in the guys’ eyes when you walk around the building. We all talk and joke, but at the same time, we know that deep down we’re putting in that work. We’re going to keep continuously trying to put forth those wins on a consistent basis.”