The 2013 class of rookies showed up to the Oakland Raiders’ headquarters in Alameda for a brief minicamp over the weekend. Many of the players will have to go back to college until they graduate, and others will be able to stick around for the start of organized team activities.
Coverage of rookie minicamps has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and naturally we try to glean something from them. The coaches are learning about the players, the players are starting to learn the playbook and we try to interpret how these performances might impact the future.
Last year, Juron Criner and Rod Streater were impressive during rookie minicamp, but only Streater contributed during the season. The difference was that Streater continued to impress after the rookie minicamp was over.
Just like last year, some of these rookies will be contenders and some will be pretenders. Which rookies are the real deal and which rookies only performed because they were competing against other rookies?
You can wait until the season or just read on as I predict the future.
Contender: Tyler Wilson, QB
Tyler Wilson was one of my favorite quarterbacks in this draft class. It didn’t come as a surprise to me when he received positive reviews after minicamp.
Will Tyler Wilson push for the starting job in 2013?
According to Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group, Wilson displayed a strong arm, great accuracy, great touch and the composure of a veteran during minicamp.
That’s a far cry from the reviews fans are accustomed to hearing about rookie quarterbacks in Oakland.
Corkran pointed out that Wilson was “miles ahead” of where JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo and Terrelle Pryor were when they arrived in Oakland as rookies.
Even head coach Dennis Allen didn’t hold back his praise of Wilson:
Well, I’ve liked the way Tyler’s commanded the huddle. I like the way he’s gone through his reads. Obviously, picking up a new system, I think there’s still a little bit of rust there but throwing the ball, I think he’s done a nice job. I don’t have any question about his arm strength and his accuracy.
Even though Wilson is a fourth-round pick, he has a legitimate chance to start at some point in 2013. Matt Flynn has two NFL starts and Terrelle Pryor has one, so from a starting experience standpoint, Wilson’s main competition is not that far ahead.
Wilson had several issues with his game coming out of college, but nearly all of them were correctable. If Wilson has already corrected some of his issues, the obstacles to him winning the job in training camp could be hurdled with relative ease.
Pretender: Brice Butler, WR
A couple leaping deep catches, and seventh-round pick Brice Butler is billed as the next Rod Streater. Butler could also be the next Juron Criner, the next Denarius Moore or he could flop in training camp and not even make the roster.
There’s a legitimate chance that Butler did nothing more than make a couple deep catches over rookie cornerbacks in a non-padded practice. Is that impressive? It could be, but only if he can keep doing it. Butler will have to prove that he can get deep against NFL cornerbacks and make contested grabs in pads going forward.
Also, there is a lot more to playing receiver than being able to haul in the deep ball.
You could say that part of the reason Moore struggled in 2013 was because he received fewer chances to make plays on long passes in the air and struggled to make plays on short or intermediate passes.
Butler will have trouble finding a role behind Moore, Jacoby Ford, Streater and Criner. It’s Criner specifically that stands in his way. He fits a similar profile as the Raiders try to replace Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Butler is a talented player that originally played for USC before transferring to San Diego State. However, the fact that Butler couldn’t get playing time at USC and caught just 24 passes for 347 yards at San Diego State is a red flag. Unlike Streater, Butler is a known commodity. Criner is a fair comparison, so don’t expect much from Butler in his first year just because he had a good rookie camp.
Contender: Sio Moore, LB
Sio Moore is a vocal guy, he’s serious about football, he wants to be great and he’s versatile.
Most importantly, Moore can rush the quarterback from the outside, which is something the Raiders could not do last season.
Without pads, it’s tough to know how good or bad Moore was during the minicamp. Corkran said he moved around all over the place and blended in with the defense, but that should be expected.
Until the pads are on, it’s going to be very difficult to make a full judgment on how much impact Moore will have in 2013. But at this point, it seems like he will at least earn a roll on pass downs as an edge-rusher.
In all likelihood, the Raiders will use more looks with four linebackers and three defensive linemen on passing downs. Although Allen quashed any talk of a base 3-4 defense, he did say that the Raiders have the ability to implement 3-4 looks. The idea would be to get Moore on the field as a pass-rusher, essentially making Moore a poor man’s version of Von Miller.
At worst, Moore will probably find playing time as a pass-rush specialist and could even win a job as an every-down player if he proves capable once he puts the pads on. Only Kaluka Maiava stands in Moore’s way at the “Sam” linebacker spot, so there is also a clear path to playing time.
Pretender: Conner Vernon, WR
Conner Vernon was another impressive receiver during rookie minicamp. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duke, Vernon holds the ACC’s all-time record for receptions. Despite his talents and projection as a slot receiver, Vernon lacks top-end athleticism.
Vernon runs crisp routes, has nice hands and did nothing to change his status during rookie minicamp.
For what it's worth: I haven't witnessed a Conner Vernon drop yet. Doesn't mean it hasn't happened, but I haven't seen it.— Chris McClain (@SB_ChrisMcClain) May 11, 2013
Despite some positive traits, Vernon’s upside is limited. That doesn’t mean Vernon couldn’t help the Raiders, but at this point he’s staring up at Rod Streater and Jacoby Ford as a slot receiver. Unless one or both of those guys plays outside or gets hurt, it’s going to be tough for Vernon to make an impact in 2013.
Vernon could make the roster or practice squad as a reserve, but beyond that it’s tough to expect more in 2013. Vernon’s best chance is to continue to do what he’s doing and hope that the competitions at wide receiver reward him with an opportunity.
Contender: Latavius Murray, RB
Veteran Rashad Jennings was signed to be Darren McFadden’s backup, so there isn’t much standing between Latavius Murray and playing time. Last season, there was a stretch of games that featured Marcel Reece as a running back when McFadden and Mike Goodson were injured.
McFadden has a history of injury, and Jennings played in just 10 games last season and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. With McFadden’s contract expiring after this season, there is reason to believe Murray could see a role this year and potentially become the starter next season.
The landscape has shifted and it’s not too much to ask a running back that was drafted on Day 3 to make an impact early. Murray was a bit of a surprise pick in the sixth round, but he impressed during rookie minicamp with his ability to catch the ball.
When asked about Murray’s smooth athleticism and ability to catch the ball, Allen was quick to praise other areas of his game:
He runs nice routes. He’s extremely intelligent. So, he’s picked up the offense real well, and he has really soft hands so he does a nice job, not only in catching the ball but, when you look at him, he’s done a nice job picking up in pass protection.
The biggest barrier to rookie running backs getting playing time is usually pass protection. Allen noted that Murray had that ability, even though he didn’t have an opportunity to demonstrate it during a non-padded rookie minicamp practices.
A running back that runs good routes, catches passes and pass-protects is a prime candidate to see some action on third downs if McFadden is injured or ineffective. If Murray can also make an impact running the ball, he’ll have the whole package. Corkran noted that Murray had a nice burst through the line, but things can change once the pads go on.
Pretender: Nick Kasa, TE
The Raiders added two tight ends in the draft. The first one was Colorado product Nick Kasa. When asked about Butler, Allen actually mentioned that the tight ends stepped up a little bit both Saturday and Sunday.
In a non-padded environment, Allen was primarily referring to Kasa and Mychal Rivera’s ability as receivers and not blockers. Kasa is likely to contribute as a blocker as a rookie, but after reviewing several of his college games, it was apparent that he has very inconsistent hands.
Rookie TE Nick Kasa just clanked a downfield pass. Billed as a guy with reliable hands.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) May 11, 2013
If Kasa doesn’t improve his ability to haul in passes, he’s only going to contribute in two-tight end sets as a rookie if he can beat out Richard Gordon for the job. Kasa will make his money as a blocker, but expectations should be tempered at this point.
Contender: Mychal Rivera, TE
The other tight end the Raiders drafted was Mychal Rivera out of Tennessee. Unlike Kasa, Rivera is a much more natural receiver. Tennessee actually used Rivera as a fullback, tight end, slot receiver and even split wide.
Mychal Rivera moves like a wide receiver after catch ... Don't see him being much of an in-line guy based on size, build— Jerry McDonald (@Jerrymcd) May 11, 2013
Rivera admitted that he needs to work on his blocking, but he’s proved he's capable in that area in college and could really develop that skill during the offseason program. Rivera needs to get bigger, but his size doesn’t mean he’s incapable of becoming a good blocker.
Delanie Walker was ProFootballFocus’ second-best run-blocker at tight end last season (subscription required) and he weighs the same as Rivera, even though he is a few inches shorter. There are several tight ends with similar builds that are effective in-line blockers, too.
Rivera’s versatility makes him a better option as the starter, with Kasa or Gordon supplementing as blocking specialists. As long as Rivera is an adequate blocker, he should see significant action as a rookie.