Pivotal Season Lies Ahead For Johnathan Abram

Photo: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I wrote about ex-Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley. The 2017 first-rounder never panned out with the Raiders and was accordingly traded halfway through the 2019 season to the Houston Texans, where his quality of play went through the roof, and he now seems entrenched as a starter.

Many Raiders fans shared their hypotheses regarding Conley’s flameout in Oakland, which included benchings and public admonitions of missed reads and mistakes: why wasn’t he good? The loudest claim was that he didn’t fit the character of a defensive back for which head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock were hunting. Conley can be a picky tackler and had plays of questionable effort during his last few games in the Black Hole, and it seemed that play style was unacceptable within the Raiders’ locker room.

It isn’t tough to extrapolate that toughness and physicality are king in the now-Las Vegas defensive backfield. In April, the Raiders spent a first-round selection on Ohio State corner Damon Arnette, a bit of a surprising first-round selection, but a player lauded for his scrappy approach and physicality as a tackler. The April previous, the Raiders spent another first-round pick on a tone-setting safety with a reckless play style: Mississippi State S Johnathan Abram.

After coaching Abram at the Senior Bowl, it was very clear how much Gruden loved the player. Abram wasn’t able to participate due to a shoulder injury that lingered from his final season, but the coaching staff requested that Abram remain on the roster so that they could spend time with him during the week. Despite playing on the 49ers’ roster in the 2019 game, Gruden spent enough time with Abram to experience the intense, football-focused Jon Abram charm about which many had raved. 

“I met him at the Senior Bowl and he was on the other team, but I couldn’t get rid of the kid,” Gruden said after Abram was drafted. “He loves football and is a coach on the field. He has a magnetic personality.” As Abram would also remark:  “I could tell at the Senior Bowl that the Raiders really liked me, the way I played and the way I carry myself. I had a really good feeling this might be my spot.”

And it was, and it was promising. The Raiders immediately slotted Abram into their starting free safety spot, looking for him to rotate into the box and over the slot as the situation demanded it, but generally wanting him free to read the play, close downhill, and punish the ball-carrier for four quarters. It was what Abram did best in college; it was why the Raiders drafted him.

So Abram did so. In a Cover 2 shell against a honey hole shot from Broncos QB Joe Flacco in Week 1, Abram flew off his spot to attack WR DaeSean Hamilton and force an incompletion on the boundary.

This was the play on which Abram tore his rotator cuff and labrum, losing the entire season to shoulder surgery. 

There are two items of significant note here for Abram. Firstly: after that hit, Abram played the remainder of the game for the Raiders, and continued to deliver crushing blows (one of which injured his own teammate and drew a penalty for leading with the helmet) for 77% of the snaps. Only after the game was the extent of his injury realized and the season put on ice. If that isn’t toughness, and perhaps a little recklessness, then I don’t know what is.

The second item of note serves this point: Abram had an injured shoulder in college that kept him out of the Senior Bowl, and then a subsequent injury that kept him out of his entire first season. The nature of Abram’s game is as such: he deals out hurt, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get hurt in the process. For a hitter at deep safety who needs his shoulders to tackle, consistent shoulder injuries could be a death knell on Abram’s particular play style.

Of course, we’re not nearly there yet. Shoulder injuries aren’t the most damaging injuries for non-throwers, so Abram has every chance of making a full recovery. He’s a young player without too much attrition on his body, despite his frequent hit sticks. Given his energy and value to the Raiders’ defensive philosophy, he could be such a fun player to watch grow.

But even if Abram does return to full health, there is a warranted question now about his role and play style. Abram entered a depth chart with Karl Joseph, a holdover from the last coaching staff that was clearly on his way out, and Lamarcus Joyner, a veteran free agent grab from the Los Angeles Rams. With no clear impact player at safety or linebacker, Abram was not only given the starting job, but also handed the keys to the defense’s pulse and energy. Even as a rookie, the Raiders were relying on Abram to be a spark plug.

But just one year later, and the Raiders’ defense is much better off than it was. Erik Harris revealed himself to be a quality starter in Abram’s absence, and now he’ll challenge Abram for the starting safety job opposite free agent addition Damarious Randall. It’s still Abram’s job to lose, but with Harris’ emergence and Randall’s addition—not to mention ex-Cowboys starter Jeff Heath—Abram doesn’t need to be a top contributor early.

Much of Abram’s appeal as a prospect was his ability to lift an entire defense: that’s the value of a “tone-setter” or “leader,” as Abram was often described. That’s still there, and if Abram’s on the field, he’ll bring the juice. But if he continues to be banged up, he will struggle to set the tone with his physical play; and if he doesn’t have that physical play available to him, he doesn’t necessarily hold up against the rest of the room. He doesn’t have nearly the same coverage ability as players like Randall or even Harris, who had more interceptions last season (3) than Abram did in his entire college career (2); he misses tackles because he plays with such aggressiveness. 

The most likely outcome for Abram remains that he returns, plays 16 games, and is a starter in a safety rotation that allows him to play in deep zones and attack from the box. He plays with his hair on fire, delivers crushing hits, draws some penalties, and learns how to calibrate his body both to player safety and the growing limitations on legal hits in the NFL. He, in short, has the rookie season many were hoping for.

But the Raiders defense can leave him behind if they need to. Without Abram, a safety room of Randall, Heath, and Harris certainly isn’t sexy, but it can get the job done—and with a retooled roster in a new stadium and new city, they don’t necessarily need to rely on his juice to get up for another game in 2020. Abram still has a place on this defense, but he isn’t as desperately needed as he was last year. Now, the onus is on him to prove his value.