Early Projections for Oakland Raiders' Final 53 Man Roster
For all of the fire and brimstone Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has had to walk through leading up to the draft, he found a way to land one heck of a draft class.
A potential franchise-changing quarterback in Derek Carr, a brawny guard named Gabe Jackson and, of course, Khalil Mack, the defensive barbarian from the University of Buffalo, take top billing as the team's next generation of stars.
As always, time will ultimately tell the whole story on how good this draft actually was. Still, it's worth noting that this draft was the first one in a while that just felt right.
Take this draft class, mix in a healthy crop of free agents, shake it all up and what you get is a Raiders team who on paper looks like it is ready to compete in the brutal AFC West.
Examining this entire team from top to bottom, here's an early look at what the final 53-man roster could look like heading into the regular season.
Quarterbacks (3): Matt Schaub, Derek Carr, Matt McGloin
Running backs (4): Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew, Latavius Murray, Marcel Reece (FB)
Wide Receivers (6): Rod Streater, James Jones, Denarius Moore, Andre Holmes, Brice Butler, Mike Davis/Greg Little (claimed off waivers, per ESPN.com)
Tight Ends (3): Mychal Rivera, David Ausberry, Nick Kasa
Offensive Linemen (9): C Stefen Wisniewski, T Menelik Watson, T Donald Penn, G Austin Howard, G Gabe Jackson, G Kevin Boothe, T Khalif Barnes, G Tony Bergstrom, T Matt McCants
Defensive Linemen (8): DE Lamarr Woodley, DT Antonio Smith, DT Pat Sims, DE Justin Tuck, DT Stacy McGee, DT Justin Ellis, DE Jack Crawford, DT C.J. Wilson
Linebackers (6): Khalil Mack, Nick Roach, Sio Moore, Kevin Burnett, Miles Burris, Kaluka Maiava
Cornerback (5): D.J. Hayden, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Keith McGill, Taiwan Jones
Safety (4): Charles Woodson, Tyvon Branch, Usama Young, Jonathan Dowling
Special Teams (5): LS Jon Condo, P Marquette King, K Sebastian Janikowski, KR George Atkinson III, PR T.J. Carrie
As much as Raiders fans would love to see rookie quarterback Derek Carr come in on Day 1 and start propelling the football downfield, the more likely scenario is that Matt Schaub will be the starter on opening day.
Explaining the team's plans at quarterback in a conversation with Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, Raiders director of player personnel Joey Clinkscales said:
We think Matt Schaub is our starter. We're confident with that and Derek will come in and he'll learn, and wherever he fits in he'll fit in. We're comfortable with the pick and knowing that he will come in and develop the way we would like to see him develop.
The move to start Schaub makes perfect sense.
Carr wasn't a first-round pick, which automatically alleviates the pressure of him being an immediate solution. Outside of that, he's a young man who still has to improve some facets of his game.
Tabling Carr's cannon-like arm for the time being, the rookie signal-caller's biggest issue is how he deals with pressure in the pocket. As Gutierrez mentioned, "...his completion percentage of 30.9 percent while under duress was the lowest of any top QB prospect, per ESPN Stats & Info."
Not being tossed like a fresh piece of seasoned flank steak into a cage full of NFL defenders is the best way to prevent Carr from having a brief career in the Bay Area.
The Raiders have quite the conundrum entering the 2014 season at running back.
But in a good way.
The return of Darren McFadden, combined with the free-agent addition of veteran Maurice Jones-Drew has given this roster a nice tandem of experienced runners on offense. When you throw in second-year man Latavius Murray and former CFL star Kory Sheets, you have a rich running back corps that will provide the Raiders with an inspired rushing attack.
When the coaching staff finally ends up politicking over who should make the final 53-man roster, it could very well come down to McFadden, Jones-Drew and Murray.
McFadden and Jones-Drew are the veteran, proven halfbacks, while Murray's physical upside far outweighs Sheets. At 6'3, 230 pounds, he peeled off a 4.38-second 40-yard dash before the 2013 draft.
The question is, will those dazzling attributes be enough to make the team?
Head coach Dennis Allen, while he was on SiriusXM NFL radio (h/t Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle), discussed the team's running back position in a way that might have revealed Murray's actual ranking within the group. Talking about "great running back depth," Allen mentioned guys like McFadden, Jones-Drew, Marcel Reece and Sheets before getting finally getting around to Murray.
Comments can easily be misconstrued, especially in May. But if Allen was hinting at the future of the position, Murray's status and his possible departure might actually be something to watch for when training camp begins.
This offseason, the Raiders plan to build a strong, robust group of wide receivers didn't take off like most people expected.
Signing James Jones away from the Green Bay Packers in free agency was a good start. But without adding a dynamite pass-catcher in the early rounds of the draft, the team will once again have to largely rely on the band of characters held over from last season.
The good news is, if you look at what Oakland's wide receivers did in 2013, at least from an advanced metrics angle, you'll be more impressed than just staring strictly at the stat sheet.
Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) shelled out positive grades to Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes. Even with a shaky quarterback situation, those three guys were efficient running their routes and finding ways to get open.
With more stability at the QB position this year and a fresh offensive line now in place, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to improve their production.
The real wild card in the group right now is undrafted free agent Mike Davis. At 6'0", 197 pounds, the former Texas Longhorn is a great athlete with fantastic wheels. He'll try to come in and make the team after piecing together an illustrious career at Texas.
Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBSSports.com) wrote about some of the areas Davis has to get better at if he wants to stick around the NFL for a while:
Needs to develop his route tree and prove to be more proficient on more than just vertical patterns. Struggles to deceive defenders on non-go routes. Not the most natural hands catcher and will have his share of drops. Only average after the catch and lacks the shifty moves or change of direction to make defenders miss. Alligator arms in traffic and needs to play without fear. Questionable mental toughness and appears to get down on himself easily. Sense of entitlement with concerns that he will never be a grinder to reach his full potential.
Davis is going to have to work his tail off and show the Raiders he belongs.
Otherwise Juron Criner, fellow rookie Noel Grigsby out of San Jose State or former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Greg Little, could take up that extra roster spot.
Mychal Rivera emerged last season as an effective pass-catching tight end for the Raiders.
Hauling in 38 receptions for 407 yards and four touchdowns, Rivera climbed the depth chart and became a reliable option for quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin.
Though his numbers weren't spectacular, he proved that he belongs on this roster. As the offense evolves, and he gets more accustomed with the scheme, his numbers should go up.
Behind Rivera sits former USC speedster David Ausberry and second-year tight end Nick Kasa.
Ausberry is compelling because of his blend of size and speed. He was a wide receiver convert who came to Oakland as a "project" pick in 2011. After learning the position for two seasons, then injuring his shoulder during the last year's preseason, 2014 appears to be the first time we'll finally get to see what this young man can do on a football field.
He's a pass-catcher, plain and simple. With NFL offenses exploiting receiving tight ends, Ausberry stands out as a guy who could explode this season.
Barring another injury, it's tough to picture him not making the Raiders' final 53-man roster.
Kasa is a second-year tight end who is confined to more of a blocking role right now. Despite not showing much in 2013, he's still young.
The dark horse in this whole race to earn a roster spot is Brian Leonhardt, a 6'5", 255-pound athlete who has enough size to block but is also an effective pass-catcher.
If the Raiders decide to keep three tight ends on the roster, watch for Kasa and Leonhardt to duke it out for that final spot.
McKenzie's decision to rebuild the Raiders' offensive line could not have come at a better time. His strategy was effective, using free agency and the draft to plug holes.
The best part about the rebuild is there's now a semblance of depth along the front. Guys like Kevin Boothe, Khalif Barnes and Matt McCants all have experience playing their respective positions at a high level.
Right now, the team's projected starting lineup looks a heck of a lot better than it did last year.
With Stefen Wisniewski at center, Menelik Watson and Donald Penn lining up as the team's tackles and a bulldozing pair of guards in Austin Howard and rookie Gabe Jackson, this is a line that has all of the tools needed to be successful.
There's no question that these guys will need time to mesh and blend into a close-knit unit. But all of that comes in due time.
For now, the Raiders have taken great strides from a personnel standpoint when it comes to their offensive line.
If there's one thing Raider fans can get excited about entering the 2014 season, it's the team's defensive line.
Veteran free-agent additions Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith have filled some serious weak spots in the line.
The focal point of this line is without a doubt on the interior. Smith and Pat Sims should be the team's starters while Stacy McGee, rookie Justin Ellis and C.J. Wilson round out a deep group of defensive tackles.
Outside of Tuck and Woodley, though, the Raiders still don't have a plethora of edge-rushers they can rely on.
First-round pick Khalil Mack could rotate in at times and bring pressure off the edge, while 25-year-old Jack Crawford will have to find a way to step up and contribute this season.
Despite the need for a more pass-rushers, this line should still be able to take a major step forward in 2014.
Last season the Raiders defense finished 18th in sacks. That number should increase solely based off the production Tuck, Woodley and Smith will bring with them to Oakland.
It's Khalil Mack's world and we're all just living in it.
Not really, but still, the arrival of Mack in Oakland is incredibly exciting for fans of the Silver and Black.
On tape, Mack is a relentless pass-rusher who just so happens to be outstanding in coverage and run support.
It will be riveting to watch how the Raiders decide to unleash him in 2014. Mack's ability to put his hand in the dirt and rush the quarterback, combined with his prowess as a linebacker, makes him Oakland's very own version of Von Miller.
Fresh off inking his rookie deal with the club, per Raiders.com, Mack gives the Raiders a defender who can do just about anything there on the gridiron.
Amazingly, Mack isn't the only beast hanging around this linebacking corps.
Second-year man Sio Moore came on strong last season posting 38 total tackles and 4.5 sacks. Based off of talent alone, Mack and Moore are in a prime position to become the leaders of the Raiders defense for the next decade.
Middle linebacker is the one position that will be up for grabs this summer.
Nick Roach should be considered the favorite to win the job entering camp. He took over that role in 2013 and at times flashed production.
Even with Roach on the squad, it's hard to completely discount veteran Kevin Burnett.
Burnett played weak-side linebacker last season, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he managed to post an outstanding plus-12 grade in defending against the run—an area in which Roach struggled.
Odds are Burnett will stay at weak-side linebacker and provide depth, but if Roach falters, he could slide over and find a way to help out.
As much as the world is going to be focused on Khalil Mack, cornerback D.J. Hayden might be the other key player worth watching on Oakland's defense this season.
The Raiders went after Hayden to be their "shutdown" cornerback during last year's draft. They were so mesmerized by the former University of Houston standout that they reportedly were going to draft him No. 3 overall if they couldn't trade back.
When he fell to them at pick No. 12, they had to no choice but to pin their ears back and pounce.
Hayden's rookie year wasn't what Raider fans had hoped for. Playing just eight games, he battled injuries all season long, which really put a damper on his ability to contribute.
But 2014 is a new year. It's a time where Hayden can show everyone that he was worth all of the high praise he commanded.
Speaking on 95.7 FM The Game (h/t Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle), Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver raved about the 23-year-old, saying, "He looks explosive and he’s put on weight and strength. And he’s really focusing in on learning the little things in the defense so that he can play faster and be more aggressive on certain types of routes," Tarver said.
The team is counting on a big turnaround from Hayden this season.
After you pass Hayden's name on the depth chart, you get to a pair of former San Francisco 49ers studs in Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Both guys are veteran cornerbacks who will provide the Raiders with some much-needed stability in the secondary.
Last but certainly not least is rookie Keith McGill out of Utah.
The Raiders took a page out of the Seattle Seahawks book when they nabbed the 6'3" defensive back in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki scouted McGill and wrote a summary on what to expect from him entering the league:
Big, athletic, press-man corner with intriguing dimensions and movement skills. However, he does not consistently play to his size, needs to adopt a professional approach to the game and will have to be micromanaged. Would ideally fit in Seattle or Jacksonville.
Aside from great quarterbacks, the AFC West also is home to a horde of outstanding wide receivers. McGill's long frame and ability to jam guys at the line of scrimmage is reason enough to throw him onto the roster.
Long-time veteran ballhawk Charles Woodson returned last season to the Silver and Black looking not only to contribute, but also help mentor the Raiders' secondary.
At 37 years old, Woodson clearly isn't the same player who won the NFL's defensive MVP award in 2009. But that doesn't mean he can't help out.
On top of that, PFF dished out a plus-1.8 grade for his overall performance. Not life altering by any means, but it proves that he still can be valuable even though he's getting a bit long in the tooth.
But the most exciting narrative surrounding the Raiders safety doesn't involve Woodson. It's actually the return of Tyvon Branch, who broke his leg last year in Week 2 and missed the remainder of the 2013 season.
Getting him back to full health is going to be crucial for this defensive unit. He's a stalwart at strong safety, who has the range and tackling ability to make an impact.
Special teams is going to look pretty much the same as it did in 2013.
Pro Bowl long-snapper Jon Condo isn't going anywhere. Joining him once again will be kicker Sebastian Janikowski and third-year punter Marquette King.
The biggest change we'll see could come in the return game.
Cornerback T.J. Carrie, a seventh-round pick in 2014, fits well as the team's punt returner, while running back George Atkinson III—son of legendary Raiders defensive back George Atkinson—could be a great addition returning kicks.
Both guys aren't a lock by any means, but their top-end speed and ability to open things up on special teams will give them a shot at making the Raiders' final 53-man roster.