Johnathan Abram’s rapid ascension to the first-team defense is something to marvel. Surely, when the Oakland Raiders nabbed the Mississippi State safety in the first round this past April, the thought was — eventually — he’d be a starter.
Nevertheless, getting to roll with the starters at this point is intriguing. Moreover, it all starts with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The Guenther scheme requires sound communications at all levels — from the front seven and all the way back to the secondary — and a cerebral nature to adjust to on the fly depending on the offense’s formation and personnel. For Guenther to fully use the tricks in repertoire, players must soak themselves in terminology and the intricacies of the designs.
That was absent last season and Guenther himself admitted he dialed back his defense tremendously.
It would appear that has changed quickly.
The scouting reports highlighted Abram’s penchant to immerse himself in the playbook and film and he’s been everything as advertised up to this point.
“He’s smart,” Guenther said. “He’s real smart. From a rookie player, with all the stuff safeties have to know, he’s on top of it each and every day. So it’s good to have him. When you’re back there, as I stand at the back of the defense, I hear him communicate. He doesn’t sound like a rookie player. He sounds like a veteran player.”
Abram quickly found himself paired up with Karl Joseph on the first team. The inability to quickly digest the schemes resulted in Joseph riding the bench and as low as the fourth safety. However, the West Virginia University product grasped the concepts and became a much-needed tone-setter in the secondary. With repetition comes comfort.
“I think it was a combination of everything – me being more comfortable in the system towards the end of the season, me being confident in myself,” Joseph said. “…But for me, I don’t think I’ve reached (my full potential), I’m far off. I still feel like I have a long way to go. That’s why I say I keep getting better every single day, every practice, training camp. I’m expecting a lot more out of myself this year.”
Which begs the question: Can two heat-seekers of safeties start for the Raiders?
Short answer: Yes.
Guenther doesn’t differentiate from free and strong safety — you’re simply a defensive back in his scheme. This allows both players — who are adept at punishing the opposition with bone-jarring hits — to either roam in the box or play center field.
Whether Joseph or Abram are keener to do one or the other is up for debate. Abram is taller and faster than his veteran counterpart is, but Joseph assimilated to the nature of the pro game.
The duo can surely make receivers rue the day they came across the middle, however, the Achilles heel will be defending against the tight end. Joseph was outmuscled by bigger tight ends and Abram has yet defend one.
However, there won’t be a shortage of willingness from either.
“He’s an alpha,” nickel cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said of Abram. “He just has to slow it down. He’s ready to go. He’s been an alpha all of his life, and I told him that you just have to think, keep your feet on the ground and let things come to him.”
The Likely End
While Joseph stated his impending free agency — the Raiders didn’t exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract — isn’t his focus, it’s difficult to imagine the situation not inhabiting a part of the safety’s mind. Guenther reiterated the ideal situation Joseph is in.
“I think he’s responded to the situation great,” Guenther said. “He knows this will be a good year for him to go out and play good and make us give him a contract. That’s the way the NFL is. That’s the way it is for me. It’s the way it is for a lot of the other guys. If you don’t perform, you’re probably looking for somewhere else to go and if you do perform, you’re going to get rewarded.”