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Graney: Future is now for Raiders’ Johnathan Abram

Johnathan Abram is caught in the trickiest of NFL conundrums.

One he needs to solve. And fast.

What could make the third-year safety of the Raiders a consistently productive player is his aggressiveness. What has already made him a liability is his aggressiveness. It’s a tangled web of highlight plays and foolish penalties.

Abram finds himself in that all-too-important window when teams often determine a player’s long-term value. It’s between the end of a third season and the following May when fifth-year options are picked up or not. When things get real about a guy’s future.

The work-in-progress characterization of Abram, a first-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2019, has run its course.

“Just learning a day at a time, learning the system, helping the defense get better,” he said. “I don’t think about things like the (fifth-year option). Things like that don’t really matter to me. The only thing I’m worried about is learning the defense and getting better every day.”

The outward brashness has mellowed. Abram met with media Thursday. His replies were short and straight like a hash mark.

A different approach

It seems forever ago when Abram as a rookie was a training camp star on “Hard Knocks,” taking horseback rides through Napa Valley and drawing the ire of head coach Jon Gruden by laying out teammates who weren’t in pads. And lots of talking from Abram. Endless talking.

But missing all but one game your first season with a shoulder injury and being graded the league’s worst safety by Pro Football Focus your second can bring new perspective — one that suggests Abram is facing a critical season for many reasons.

He’s a box safety in new coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme. It should play to Abram’s strength against the run. He led the Raiders in tackles last season with 86. It might also hide his weakness against the pass, where opposing quarterbacks completed 81.8 percent of attempts when targeting Abram.

Competition for playing time also lurks in veteran Karl Joseph and rookie Tyree Gillespie, a fourth-round pick Gruden praised as camp opened this week.

“He’s a big hitter,” Gruden said of Gillespie. “He’s a guy that can tackle. We think he can play in the post, and we certainly think he can play down low around the line of scrimmage.”

Sound like someone?

Abram has certainly been humbled. Now he needs to be hungry.

Just in a more disciplined manner.

He had the second-most penalties in the NFL last season and tied for the lead in unnecessary roughness infractions with three. He often takes bad angles looking for the most crushing hit rather than simply getting an opponent to the ground. Being overly physical can be a good thing. It can also get you exploited at this level.

There was the torn rotator cuff and labrum as a rookie. There was the sprained shoulder and chipped collarbone last season after Abram crashed into a television cart on Monday Night football. Full speed is fine. Until it isn’t.

Play smarter

A reputation — deserved or not — comes with being a big hitter. Rodney Harrison had it. Jamal Adams still does. More often than not, officials have their flag ready to toss when quarterbacks throw across the middle. The rules no longer favor those bringing the hammer.

It speaks, then, to how mentally tough safeties must be to succeed. Abram has all the tools to be elite. He just needs to play a whole lot smarter.

“I’m looking to do whatever they ask of me,” he said. “If they ask me to play deep, I’ll do it. If they ask me to play near the line of scrimmage, I’ll do it. I’ll do everything to the best of my ability.”

He needs to untangle that web and become a more sound player.

His future is now. Literally.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. 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.