One of the most intriguing position battles in Oakland is at tight end. Tight end is a position in transition in Oakland after the Raiders decided not to re-sign Zach Miller last year. In what was probably an overreaction to losing Miller, the Raiders signed the only remaining veteran tight end available. Kevin Boss parlayed the demand for his services into an above-market contract and Reggie McKenzie, looking to clear salary cap space, released Boss this offseason.
In 2012, veteran Brandon Myers is trying hold-off sophomore tight ends David Ausberry and Richard Gordon for the starting job. Thanks to the management of McKenzie, the Raiders have enough cap space to sign a veteran should the coaching staff not be content with the three on the roster.
For now, it's a three-horse race at tight end and any of them could emerge the starter with a good training camp. Myers is the favorite, partly because he is the most veteran of the options the Raiders have. Myers started seven games in 2011 and played over Boss at times. Myers is a slightly above average receiver for a tight end.
According to ProFootballFocus, Myers was targeted 24 times in 2011 and caught 16 passes for 151 yards. It's only reasonable to expect no more than a doubling of those statistics if he becomes the starter after playing in 37 percent of the offensive snaps last year.
Myers struggled run blocking in 2011. That could be less of an issue with the zone-blocking scheme as Myers will be asked to assist the tackle or reach for a linebacker more often than he is asked to block a defensive end. It's still worth noting that he's not the strongest blocker at a position where a strong blocker can be helpful.
Despite Myers' weakness run blocking, he has plenty of experience. The same can't be said of David Ausberry. According to ProFootballFocus statistics, Ausberry was asked to run block just twice in 2011. Ausberry got his most extensive action in the Week 17 loss to the Chargers and caught a single pass for 10 yards.
Ausberry is a former top high school recruit at wide receiver who had a disappointing college career at USC, but he's still a physical talent. Ausberry added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, according to Paul Gutierrez and hopes the added weight will help him become an every-down tight end capable of holding his own as a blocker.
Ausberry is still a conversion project and training camp and the preseason will be an important test of his run blocking, but he's got a lot of potential and could emerge as the starter. Ausberry needs to show the coaches that his ability in the passing game is worth a few warts in the running game. It's up Ausberry and the coaching staff to do what they can get his run blocking to a serviceable level by the end of camp, because there's a good chance he will be pressed into action at some point in 2012.
Richard Gordon might be the most interesting of the three tight ends. He was a blocking specialist in college, but has flashed some receiving ability during the offseason program. Last season Gordon was pressed into service as a blocking fullback due to injury and performed admirably showing his versatility and ability to pick things up quickly.
Gordon might be the best run blocker of the three tight ends battling for the starting job, but he's an unknown in the passing game. The Raiders should test him during training camp and the preseason games to see how he might do if given expanded opportunities.
Given the unknowns at the position, the Raiders should probably bring in a veteran to compete. With Visanthe Shiancoe signing in New England, one of the only viable options is Jeremy Shockey. Shockey is a more proven run blocker and receiver than any of the tight ends on the roster and at very least could be a one-year option while the Raiders continue to develop Ausberry.
The Raiders really need the tight ends to improve and have assigned offensive consultant and former offensive coordinator Al Saunders with the task of getting the group up to speed. Saunders has a long track record of success developing receivers and the Raiders are hoping his years of experience will help this very young position group.