CHARLOTTE — After spending two seasons in Silver and Black, linebacker Tahir Whitehead won't see the Raiders as teammates on Sunday.
Now the Panthers middle linebacker and defensive signal-caller, Whitehead may have an edge over many linebackers taking on unfamiliar opponents in Week 1. While the Raiders are no longer in the city Whitehead called home for the last two seasons, the relocated organization has remained mostly intact.
Head coach and offensive play-caller Jon Gruden is still there. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson is, too. Playmakers Whitehead went against in practice, like quarterback Derek Carr, running back Josh Jacobs, and tight end Darren Waller also moved to Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, Whitehead downplayed his familiarity with the Raiders, saying he hasn't told his new teammates anything significant that they couldn't see on tape. Head coach Matt Rhule also hasn't done much to gather Whitehead's intel on his former club.
"I want our guys to worry about us. I want Tahir focused as possible on playing great defense, playing our defense, and attacking their offense," Rhule said. "I think he's been very focused all camp, and as you get to know him, that's really who he is."
But cornerback Donte Jackson had a different take.
"(Whitehead) feels it's his duty to make sure we're all good," Jackson said. "He's let us know everything that he knows, everything he remembers from the scheme. We've definitely been picking his brain, having some long conversations just to try to get even a little bit of an upper hand."
Second-year running back Josh Jacobs is the heartbeat of the Raiders offense. He was the PFWA's Offensive Rookie of the Year but did not receive the AP award given at NFL Honors. That went to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Regardless, Jacobs set a Raiders' rookie record by rushing for 1,150 yards in just 13 games.
"He's a tough runner. He runs angry. That's what I've been letting the guys know, we're going to have to gang tackle," Whitehead said. "Don't underestimate him and expect him to be an easy tackle, or an easy down when the ball is in his hands because he's looking to get to the end zone."
Then there's tight end Darren Waller, who had a breakout season in 2019, emerging as one of the Raiders' top threats. He caught 90 passes for 1,145 yards with three touchdowns. Only the Chiefs' Travis Kelce had more receiving yards as a tight end last year with 1,229.
"He's 6'6" and some change and can run like a doggone wide receiver. He runs like a 4.4. He's tall, and he has solid hands," Whitehead said. "I think that presents a lot of matchup issues."
While there's familiarity in the opponent, 2020 is still shaping up to be a season unlike any other. Though the practice week is similar, Whitehead acknowledged how different gameday might feel.
"You can't feed off the juice from the crowd when you make a big play and all of that stuff," Whitehead said. "There's nobody else out there, and this year more than any other year, that really holds true."
As one of the Panthers' leaders, Whitehead will likely be a significant part of energizing the club on Sunday. To that point, Rhule's been nothing but pleased with Whitehead's performance and leadership ability.
"He's a true professional," Rhule said. "He's most importantly a great person, great father, great husband, but also a great player and teammate."
But at Sunday's kickoff, there will be a familiar scowl on the opposite sideline ready for Whitehead to be at his best.
"We had a lot of fun," Gruden said. "I wish him the very best. I can't wait to see him, and he gave us everything he had."
NEWS AND NOTES
— As a new rule for 2020, teams can protect four players from being signed off their practice squad each week starting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. In Week 1, those four Panthers players are running back Reggie Bonnafon, defensive back Natrell Jamerson, offensive tackle Matt Kaskey, and kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik.
Protecting practice squad players is one of the many roster rule changes this season. Another is gameday rosters have expanded from 46 to 48 players (as long as a team has eight active offensive linemen, otherwise it must be 47 players). Additionally, two practice squad players may be placed on the active roster for a game, giving a team 55 instead of 53 players to choose from. That can happen only two times per player before he must be signed to the active roster.
"It's not really quite as protected as maybe I thought when it first came out," Rhule said. "I think for us, it's just a matter of who do we want to protect each week that we think has a chance to get into the game."
Jamerson, however, has been placed on the practice squad/COVID-19 list. He will not count against the Panthers' 16 practice squad players until he is cleared to return.
— Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater declined to expand on a tweet he sent that seemingly criticized the NFL's plan to write "End racism" and "It takes all of us" in end zones.
"I tweeted what I tweeted and that pretty much explains how I feel about it. I don't really want to speak about it too much," Bridgewater said. "I have a football game to focus on."
— Earlier this week, Rhule told reporters he considered Gruden a mentor from afar. On a Wednesday conference call with local Charlotte media, Gruden said he became a fan of Rhule when the Panthers head coach was at Temple. As a former Philadelphia offensive coordinator back in the 90s, Gruden knows turning Temple into a winner is a tall task.
"He walked in there, beat Penn State, turned that place around and he did it with style," Gruden said. "This guy is special. He has a lot of passion, he has a lot of knowledge, and he brings a relentless presence every day."
— Cornerback Rasul Douglas, defensive end Shareef Miller, offensive lineman Trent Scott, and practice squad linebacker Clay Johnston all participated in their first practice on Wednesday. Johnston's arrival was a homecoming of sorts. He played for much of the same coaching staff at Baylor, and his father, Kent, is Carolina's director of player wellness.
"I think Clay was a guy that was going to be an early draft pick until he tore his ACL as a senior," Rhule said. "He's a young, dynamic, physical linebacker who can really run."