As the NFL prepared for the final wave of players reporting for training camp, Chargers RB Austin Ekeler said he felt “like a lab rat” as the league joined other American sports leagues trying to navigate playing during a pandemic. Looking around at the outbreaks around the country, Ekeler can’t help but lack confidence in the NFL’s ability to play without disruption. Despite his skepticism, though, Ekeler says he doesn’t plan to opt-out of the 2020 season.
“The thing is, what I can be is just confident in myself and I know I’m going to try my best to isolate and not be around anybody,” Ekeler said via TMZ. “I’m just taking it day by day and I’m not gonna say that [the 2020 season] can’t happen, but I’m just saying that we need to protect ourselves first before we can continue moving forward.”
“I’m dealing with a family matter, my mom was just diagnosed with cancer and it’s Stage 4, so that was my decision,” Williams said. “With everything that’s going on, she was the only one there for me. I never had the opportunity to have my dad there. My mom is my rock, my everything, so during a hard time like this, I think I should be next to her every step.”
Williams mentioned that his mother was recently diagnosed with stage four cancer and that is why he chose to opt-out.
“It was hard, I sat down and talked to everybody in my circle, my family and everybody close to me,” Williams said. “My mom was just like, whatever’s your decision, I’m behind you. It was hard. Football is my life and coming off a championship and wanting a repeat — and I know they’re going to handle that — but at the end of the day, it was something personal I had to handle.”
Raiders HC Jon Gruden was brutally honest about the weird offseason, adding that he has never even met LB Cory Littleton, who is expected to have a massive impact on defense.
“We’re trying to raise the bar around here,” Gruden said, via Tashan Reed of The Athletic. “I’ve never met Cory Littleton. We paid this guy a lot of money to be our feature defensive player. There’s a lot of free agents I have not had hands-on contact with either. And we’re not the lone ranger: Everybody in the league is going through this. We have to do the best we can. It’s not going to be an equitable or fair season. Some teams are going to be hit hard by this virus and some teams might not. Some teams might have fans and some teams might have cardboard cutouts. I don’t know, but we just got to deal with it. We got to try to be creative. Fortunately, I think we’ve got a great coaching staff that can really teach the game. That’s what I’m relying on the most.”
Gruden also mentioned backup QB Marcus Mariota among those he is impressed with this offseason.
“I’ve been impressed,” Gruden said. “The No. 1 thing with Marcus was to get healthy. He did a great job getting himself healthy and learning our system. That’ll give him a chance to be Marcus Mariota.”
Among those he is critical of, Gruden was most critical of himself and his coaching decisions during the 2019 season.
“We stunk last year — I stunk — inside the 1-yard line,” Gruden said. “We got stuffed too many times down inside the 2-yard line. That’s all my fault. We got to address our tight goal-line offense to be a good scoring team. Staying healthy and the emergence of some of these second-year players and rookies will help. Again, we got to create some turnovers on defense, we got to eliminate the penalties and we got to close out a drive inside the 1. Those are some things I’ve already talked about. I gotta coach better; ain’t no doubt about that.”
With the roster undergoing a complete overhaul for the most part, Gruden notes that several of the players are expected to make a big jump in 2020 after being thrown to the sharks in 2019.
“We’ve been good fast-tracking players at every position,” Gruden said. “Last year was a great indication. Over the last couple of years, a lot of young players have played for us and that was the goal when we got here. You could say we excavated the land here in terms of the roster the first year, but we’ve built it back with young players. Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, obviously Josh Jacobs and Hunter Renfrow. Kolton Miller started as a rookie. Brandon Parker started as a rookie. We don’t have any doubt that Trayvon Mullen if he can start, Damon Arnette can start. Jonathan Abram was an opening-day starter as well.”
Gruden continued to speak in-depth about what the new additions to the Raiders can bring this coming year and that the team will be unafraid to give a chance to their young players.
“We’re not afraid to play the young guys, but they gotta earn it. I think we’ve got a chance to be much, much better,” Gruden said. “I think the addition of Nick Kwiatkoski and Littleton solves a problem for us. The return of Jonathan Abram. An experienced Trayvon Mullen. I think Lamarcus Joyner in Year 2 in the system will be better. I really think the key to our defense is eliminating penalties and creating more turnovers. I think Maliek Collins is a name we got to circle and look at every single day. I think that 3-technique in this defense has to raise hell and he’s got to do it for us.”