By JOSH DUBOW
NAPA, Calif. — Charles Woodson is back on the familiar practice fields in Napa once again wearing the No. 24 Oakland Raiders jersey he had for his first eight NFL seasons.
There’s plenty else that has changed for Woodson and the Raiders in those seven years between his two stints in Oakland.
Woodson returned this offseason to his original NFL team to much fanfare as a far different person and player than he was when he left for Green Bay following the 2005 season.
Once a brash young star who clashed with coach Bill Callahan, Woodson returned as a respected veteran with Super Bowl-winning credentials who is being counted on to contribute with his talent on the field and his leadership off of it.
“I’m just older. That’s really it,” Woodson said of the changes since 2005. “I play the game now going on 16 years. The great thing about it is it’s still fun. I still love it. I plan on having a great deal of fun this season with the guys who are going to the first game. I feel good. My body feels good. As far as anything being different, I’m a Raider again.”
That was somewhat surprising after he was released early this offseason by Green Bay. After first talking with a couple of contending teams like San Francisco and Denver, Woodson finally ended up signing with the Raiders in late May after his free agent visit featured a throng of fans who came to the team facility to welcome their old hero back to town.
Woodson said that fan support — along with financial support from a one-year deal with $1.8 million guaranteed and a potential value of $4.3 million — helped make his decision to return easy.
“The one thing about it is the fans, they treat me as if I never left,” Woodson said. “That’s probably the greatest part of it. The reception when I got to the facilities a couple of months ago, the love that the fans showed me. That was huge. That meant a lot to me. That’s another reason why you go out and work the way you work and play the way you play is for the fans. You want to give them the best you can possibly give them out there on the field and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Woodson is being counted on to help a revamped secondary that struggled last season with inexperience and ineffectiveness. Strong safety Tyvon Branch is the only returning starter with free-agent signees Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins competing with first-round pick D.J. Hayden to start at cornerback and Woodson stepping in as the starting free safety.
That overhaul is part of the big defensive changes in Oakland, where only Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston might be the only starters from 2012 to remain in that role this year.
But with head coach Dennis Allen having a background as a defensive backs coach, upgrading the secondary was a high priority.
“It’s an improved group,” Allen said. “We have some veteran players in there who understand how to play the game. I think there’s some leadership on the back end. This is a passing league, and you have to be strong in the secondary to survive.”
Woodson’s versatility as a former cornerback who has the ability to play free safety, cover slot receivers and blitz will only help that group.
Woodson has 55 career interceptions, 17 sacks, 24 forced fumbles and 11 interception returns for touchdowns in eight seasons in Oakland and seven in Green Bay.
He has already had an impact as a mentor to the younger players.
“It’s just the way he approaches practice and film study,” Branch said. “He’s smart. We talk a lot during the play. We talk a lot pre-snap. He’s a smart guy. He helps me make those split-second decisions that much quicker because he’s already alerted me to them.”
Woodson missed nine games during the regular season for Green Bay last year because of a broken right collarbone but says he is completely healthy this summer.
While Allen said he would limit Woodson’s time on the practice field as a 36-year-old veteran, Woodson said there’s no need for such treatment.
“My age is not going to dictate for me whether I practice a lot or not practice a lot,” he said. “I’m going to take as many reps as I can just because I still love football. To stand on the sideline that’s not what I enjoy. I like being on the field. They’re going to have to pull me off the field at times because I love being out there. … I’m going to work hard. I feel like there’s nobody who will outwork me.”