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Graney: 4th-year safety has much to prove with Raiders

Updated June 11, 2022 - 7:03 pm

There’s nothing wrong with playing football wearing a chip on your shoulder. Might make for a more focused approach. Might make you more determined. Might make you better overall.

It seems Johnathan Abram has every intention of finding out.

Do you remember when Abram was a rookie safety with the Raiders and training camp star on “Hard Knocks,” taking horseback rides through Napa Valley and drawing the ire of former coach Jon Gruden by laying out teammates who weren’t in pads?

And lots of talking from Abram. Endless talking.

He’s not that way now. Hasn’t been for some time. It has been a slow but deliberate process toward limiting his thoughts publicly.

There are two kinds of athletes — those who have been humbled and those who eventually will be. I’m pretty sure Abram wouldn’t admit to being among the former group, but there’s no question he has shifted outwardly into a full-time mode of seriousness.

He has something to prove.

Football acumen

“You know what?” defensive backs/pass game coordinator Jason Simmons said. “The first thing that comes to mind when you mention (Abram) is his football acumen. I’ve been really excited to see how much he knows of the game and understands the game. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. He is a really bright football player.”

One the Raiders still aren’t sure about.

Abram was among three first-round draft picks from the 2019 class (running back Josh Jacobs and defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell were the other two) whom the team declined to exercise fifth-year options.

It wasn’t a surprise with Abram, who has struggled with performance and injuries. He was guaranteed $7.9 million had the Raiders picked up his option. He now has this season to show how much he is really worth as a player.

Either here or somewhere else as a free agent.

It begins with him staying healthy.

There was the torn rotator cuff and labrum as a rookie, when he was lost after the season opener. There was the sprained shoulder and chipped collarbone his second year. There was the season-ending shoulder surgery last season after Abram had played every snap through 14 games.

Three seasons, just 28 games played.

“Taking it day by day,” Abram said. “I just show up to work every day to get better. That’s about it … confidence comes from getting out there and getting the reps and constantly building things, not from what the media says.”

He totaled 116 tackles (second on the team) before going down last season, a sign that he might have found a place in the scheme of things.

It was in the box, not near first-down yardage from the line of scrimmage, where his aggressiveness played well in nonpassing situations. But he has consistently struggled in coverage. There is an obvious reason why opposing quarterbacks target him.

It’s true he looked more comfortable last season, like he had finally discovered a home in which he could produce. But how that translates to new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s mindset is anyone’s guess.

‘Right on time’

Know this: There will be competition for Abram’s spot. Much could come from nine-year pro Duron Harmon and his familiarity with the new coaching staff after spending seven seasons in New England.

“Right now, (Abram) is a football player,” Simmons said. “You know, I mean, that’s the beauty of Coach Graham’s scheme. These guys are football players. How we have to deploy the guys when the game comes, then we’ll figure that out.”

Abram was asked how he envisions himself entering his fourth season.

“I’m right on time,” he said.

Now is really the moment to prove it.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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