The Tyvon Branch-to-the-Pro Bowl bandwagon is picking up passengersand speed."Tyvon is, in my mind, a Pro Bowl player, without a doubt," Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said this week of his strong safety. "This is a guy who, every game, he comes with his 'A' game. Effort wise, tenacity wise, playing physical and doing what you ask him to do. And we do move him around."He plays safety in base, he plays nickel in nickel, he plays in a corner position in our big package against big personnel. He does anything we ask him. He never says a word. He comes out and practices a thousand miles-an-hour every day at practice."He is the epitome of a Pro Bowl player in my mind."Apparently, fans have noticed as well, even if the fourth-year defensive back from UConn does not have the cachet of say, a Troy Polamalu. In fan voting for the Pro Bowl, Branch is third among AFC strong safeties, behind Polamalu and Buffalo's George Wilson.Branch's 88 tackles are the most by any strong safety in the NFL, nine more than Wilson, and are seventh-most of any player in the AFC. Plus, Branch has a sack, a fumble recovery, three passes defensed and an interception. He also dabbles in being the gunner on the punt team.So how does it feel to be in so many Pro Bowl conversations?"Man, I just want to get to the playoffs," Branch said. "That's what I tell people. I'm doing my part to try to get us to the playoffs. And whatever comes of that, it just happens."Sunday, he'll have an opportunity to show his skills against the unbeaten and untied defending Super Bowl champions in Green Bay.So what jumps off the film at Branch, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008?"It's crazy, because when you think about them you think they're doing something crazy, but they really just have a basic offense," Branch said. "They just line up and think that their guys are better than yours, and that Aaron Rodgers is going to put the ball on the money. And you know, he does it consistently. That's their game plan -- my guy is better than yours."It's worked for 18 straight games for the Packers.And a Pro Bowl nod might be solidified for Branch with a big game at Lambeau Field. Especially if he can pick off Rodgers. Twelve strong safeties in the NFL have more interceptions than Branch.More picks would mean more recognition."I think especially with fan voting and all that," Bresnahan said. "Just the name, the household name, you have to get it out there a little bit. But I think his peers know. The guys that watch him play or play against him every Sunday know what Tyvon Branch does. It clearly shows on film."Anybody that knows football, sees the impact that he has on a game."Besides, Branch hopes to not be in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. Not with the two conference champion teams preparing for the Super Bowl that day."Exactly," he said.
The Raiders searched in vain for dynamic receiving production before Amari Cooper came along. Thousand-yard seasons proved elusive even in the golden age of passing stats, with a full decade’s drought after Randy Moss posted a four-digit total in 2005.
Cooper’s made that old hat.
The 2015 first-round pick has two 1,000-yard campaigns in as many seasons. Ditto for Pro Bowl honors. Those feats have become increasingly common, Cooper’s already in rarified air.
Cooper’s career is off to a solid start, but the No. 4 overall pick two years ago believes he can be much better. That especially true later in the season, where production has waned in his first two seasons.
He has nine 100-yard performances in two seasons, with just two coming after week 8. He noticeably struggled with injury at the end of 2015, but wouldn’t make excuses for a production drop last season.
Cooper wants to finish as strong as he starts, and has full confidence that will happen this season.
“Of course it’s been on my mind, but it’s a good thing to me because I feel like I can go nowhere but up,” Cooper said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “I know that I can have a lot more production than I’ve had in the past two seasons, so we’ll just see.”
Cooper has sought counsel from other NFL greats – Calvin Johnson has been in Alamenda this week, offering sage advice – and Raiders coaches have identified ways where he can be even more dynamic working with quarterback Derek Carr.
“Certainly there are things that we think we can do to help,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Also, for him, I think he has a much greater understanding. I thought last year was a step forward. I know he wants to continue to push. It’s great when you have a young, talented player that’s really eager to be special, wants to make a mark in this league. The way he’s working at it right now is outstanding. That’s all we want of our guys.
Cooper is a versatile presence, able to do most everything well. His route running was luaded out of college, though he can be a good deep-ball receiver and can create big plays after the catch. Cooper knows his hands much be more consistent, but the Raiders want to exract more from his natural talents.
“There are a lot of different facets to him,” Del Rio said. “Where his speed is really one of his greatest strengths, obviously, his route running ability was pretty doggone polished when he got here, but even that can continue to improve and the timing with Derek. We think he’ll continue to ascend.”
That’s the goal heading into his third NFL season now armed with greater knowledge of how he’s being covered and muscle memory of what went wrong at times later in the year.
Cooper believes detail work will help him this fall and winter, and that starts in earnest during the offseason program.
“It’s easy to forget the small things like high-pointing the ball, looking the ball all the way through and not trying to run before you actually catch the ball,” Cooper said. “Overall, I’m just working hard in the offseason so that you can come back and you can be dominant.
“I want to be the best Amari Cooper that I could possibly be. I want to be better than every other year that I’ve played football, so that’s how I am looking at this year.”
Editor's Note: The above video is from Dec. 24, 2016.
Donald Penn was nothing short of awesome last season. The veteran Raiders left tackle proved impenetrable, allowing just one sack and 27 quarterback pressures in 676 pass-blocking snaps.
He ranked high among the NFL’s best left tackles at 33, engulfed a career renaissance that began after joining the Raiders three years ago. Penn made the Pro Bowl. He was a vital piece of a 12-4 team that helped the Raiders reach the playoffs.
He hasn’t reveled much in that. Penn’s driven by opportunities missed, and one mishap that haunts him still.
Penn locked horns with Indianapolis linebacker Trent Cole off the left edge during a Week 16 contest against the Colts, and slipped as he was tracking his man away from the pocket. Penn’s feet got tangled and the big man fell. Cole remained upright, darted in and sacked quarterback Derek Carr.
It was Penn’s only sack allowed all season. And Carr got hurt. He suffered a broken fibula that ended his season and realistic hopes of a Raiders playoff run.
Nearly five months have passed since that fluke play. Carr is healthy and a full participant in the Raiders offseason program. The Raiders offensive line might be better after allowing a league-low 18 sacks last season.
There’s plenty to be excited about as the Raiders enter OTAs and a mandatory minicamp. Penn can’t help but lament that isolated incident when Carr went down.
“You have to be an athlete. You try not to think about it too much,” Penn said Tuesday. “You wish you could go back and get it back. I’ve taken that same set I don’t know how many times, on the same field and never just slipped out of nowhere. I’m not going to put it on myself. I should have been able to do something better. You know me, I’m never going to blame the slip for happening. I should have blocked him and held on to him and taken him down with me. That play sticks with me.”
That isn’t all bad. It fuels Penn to continue growing as a player, even at 34 coming off an excellent Pro Bowl season.
“I’m going to try to do what I can do better and make sure it never happens again,” Penn said. “I’ve never gotten a quarterback hurt in my life since I’ve been playing. That was a first. That’s something I take pride in. I’m going to try my hardest to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Penn wants a different ending to this season. Last year the Raiders lost the AFC West crown and a shot to win the team’s first playoff game. Penn suffered a knee injury the following week that kept him from playing in the postseason.
The goal is to realize vast potential now that the Raiders offense is back healthy again.
“I’m all about karma and stuff like that,” Penn said. “Maybe (God is) trying to tell us that this is our year. We have to put in the work to get it. I know D.C. is happy, I’m dang sure happy to get him back. We’re growing and masterminding this offense trying to make it as explosive as possible.”