As Smith’s snaps go, they’ll be as simple as possible. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. just wants him to chase down the quarterback, whether it be Joe Flacco, Johnny Manziel, or Peyton Manning.
And Mays is simply catching up on some of the things he’s not yet mastered, though he has an immediate advantage stemming from his college years, Norton Jr. was his defensive coordinator at USC.
“He’s got some work to do. He’s been here a short time. We had him early on shortly before the cuts. He has some history of the system back in his early college days. Hopefully that all comes back pretty soon, but we’re using these days. Theses day are very important to us. These hours and days and all these meetings that we’re having are very important to us.”
Mays, who has yet to record a career interception in 66 games, is unlikely to be forced into starting. The Raiders backup, who ran a 4.43 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine and fell into the second round because of concerns over his mental makeup.
But if the observations made over the last week are true, Oakland need not worry. Mays has been kind, genuine, and seems to be fitting in nicely. He parks his gear near the front of the Raiders locker room, and gets a prime chance to discuss things with his neighbor, Charles Woodson.
It seems likely that Woodson will start Sunday. He was a limited participant in practice Thursday, and has been lobbying for the go ahead.
It’s certain that either Mays, or free safety Larry Asante will suit up Sunday and start on defense in the stead of Nate Allen, who was placed on short-term injured reserve following a knee injury suffered in the season opener against Cincinnati.
Asante is the hands down favorite in that competition. But Mays will get his shot if Asante can’t get things done early on. There’s also the chance that Oakland uses three safeties on third downs, one lined up in coverage underneath like a linebacker, and Mays could excel in that role.
Because the Bengals game tape left Norton pretty down on the linebackers in pass coverage, something that can’t continue if the Raiders are to have any success this season. Norton said:
“I think the team needs to be better. The coaches need to be better. We all need to be better and do the things it takes to win ball games. There are plays out there that we left out there.”
Without a strong showing there, Norton and head coach Jack Del Rio might want a change. If you can’t get it from the position group, find someone else that can help. That’s the NFL.
And Mays is the most obvious option.
Mays touched on a few topics this week, he says that he didn’t want to play for any other team. Which makes sense because Oakland’s need at safety is huge, especially with the injuries.
He also said something that is becoming a trend for free agents signed by the Raiders recently: he chose the Raiders over more money elsewhere, which is something Smith reportedly did.
Mays says he liked everyone in Oakland. And he brings a certain element to the team that has been absent, a veteran that has hopped around a few times. Mays has played for three teams in the 2015 calendar year, an oddity for any player.
There’s an underdog element to Mays that isn’t found in other Raiders players, not in one’s who have been around a few years — something that can be said for only a handful in the first place.
His tone speaks to the fact that he’s fending off the 2015 season as his last in the NFL after being a highly touted prospect in college.
He played four seasons in Cincinnati, and saw his far share of Ravens receiver Steve Smith last year after he was traded from Carolina.
Smith, among the oldest receivers to ever start in the NFL, and one of the leagues most accomplished, is also a prolific trash talker. Mays knows the talk. He has a tremendous amount of respect for Smith, and considers the talking something likable:
“Especially at his age, to just love the game. I think that’s cool.”
Any fan of football, anyone who loves playing and most who love watching, has to love Smith. They would consider Smith a parallel to Deion Sanders in many respects. They make plays, and they know how to entertain.
Mays is not that type of guy. But he’s one that you have to root for in a similar fashion. You want the guy to win. He’s soft-spoken, and he also talks to you.
Not like the barista at Starbucks, or the checker at the grocery store. There’s not many unnecessary clichés.
He knows that the 2015 season might be his last among the cream of athletes across the world, where the world’s best rugby player struggles, and Olympians can’t even make the first cut.
Mays discussed the opportunity in Oakland:
“I don’t necessarily look at it that way. I know it’s a ‘new’ situation, but the defense is somewhat similar to what I did in college, and I immediately felt comfortable with the team. It’s almost like I’ve been here for a while.”
Mays and the Raiders hope that he can do enough to stay for a while.
Raiders receiver Amari Cooper maintains that Bengals cornerback Adam Jones shouldn’t be suspended, and that it’s football — physicality is a big part of the game. Cooper is surely earning more fans in locker rooms across the league. The kid has a very bright future.
Oakland has one final practice session before a Saturday walk through and a their second game of the season Sunday, against the Baltimore Ravens.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.