Oakland Raiders' 5 Biggest Training Camp Battles

Maurice MotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2017

Oakland Raiders' 5 Biggest Training Camp Battles

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has stocked the cupboard over the past few seasons, and now it's time for steel to sharpen steel to put the sharpest competitors on the field for the 2017 season.

    Players who don't earn starting spots will serve as more than worthy reserves, providing the team with great depth for the upcoming campaign. A camp-battle loss for an individual will go down as a win for the rotation at the position.

    Training camp will bring the friendly fire starting July 29 on the practice field in Napa, California. The Raiders will take their competitive frustrations out on other teams in a Week 1 preseason game on August 12 against the Arizona Cardinals.

    Before the vetting process for the 53-man roster officially begins with pads on, we'll highlight the biggest camp battles and project winners at each position.

Slot Wide Receiver

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    Seth Roberts vs. Cordarrelle Patterson

    When you think about wide receiver Seth Roberts, drops and game-winning touchdowns come to mind. Ask fans about him, and you'll get mixed reactions. Some feel his intermittent stone hands warrant an immediate benching; others view him as an integral piece to the team's success over the past two seasons. 

    Roberts came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and he's one score behind 2016 No. 4 overall pick wideout Amari Cooper in touchdown grabs. Don't forget the West Alabama product ranks as the third-best blocking wide receiver in the league, per Pro Football Focus. Despite the drops, he's exceeded expectations in overall production. 

    Cordarrelle Patterson didn't live up to first-round expectations with the Minnesota Vikings. In four seasons, he's accumulated 1,316 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a pass-catcher. The fifth-year wide receiver brings tremendous value for a special teams core that lost several contributors. 

    Patterson doesn't compare to Roberts as a blocker, and he needs to build a rapport with quarterback Derek Carr before stealing significant targets from Roberts in the slot.

    The former Vikings wide receiver will take the field as a dangerous gadget option who can burn defenders after the catch and take some handoffs on trick plays. He's handled 31 rush attempts for 333 yards and four touchdowns as a ball-carrier through four seasons. 

    Winner: Seth Roberts

Nickelback

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    T.J. Carrie vs. Gareon Conley

    This position battle deserves a more critical eye. Most will match up player backgrounds and assume the rookie first-rounder wins the competition over a 2014 seventh-round pick simply because the team views the early draft pick as the future. 

    How quickly we forget the coaching staff threw everything at defensive back T.J. Carrie during the 2015 season due to depleted talent in the secondary. He played outside cornerback and safety alongside Charles Woodson in that season.

    Additionally, the Ohio product served as the primary punt returner. Toward the end, Carrie floundered with everything on his plate, but he could flourish with a narrow focus at a single position.

    Head coach Jack Del Rio isn't going to hand a starting spot or the nickelback position to Gareon Conley. However, the Ohio State product has the ability to earn significant playing time as a rookie.

    In the best-case scenario, the coaching staff would like to utilize Conley's ability to cover quicker receivers down the field. Defensive assistant John Pagano will focus on matchups as he tries to limit explosive plays on the back end.

    If Conley gains clearance on his reputation amid sexual assault allegations, he'll surpass Carrie through the preseason and line up on the perimeter on occasion. 

    Winner: Gareon Conley

Middle Linebacker

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    Cory James vs. Ben Heeney vs. Marquel Lee vs. Unnamed Veteran

    Through organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, Cory James made an early claim for the starting spot. Yet, it's still not enough to put him over as the unquestionable starter at the position.

    Assuming Ben Heeney arrives at training camp healthy enough to participate in full practices, the third-year linebacker will provide some competition at the spot. However, he must show improvement in his coverage ability.

    No one knows what to expect from rookie Marquel Lee but placing him as the front-runner to start goes beyond optimistic. As long as Perry Riley Jr. remains available, he's the favorite to return and reclaim the starting middle linebacker spot. 

    Riley started 11 games in the middle of the Raiders defense and served as a quality veteran fill-in with great instincts and the ability to track the football. He forced two fumbles and logged 38 tackles in 2016.

    Whether it's Riley or an unnamed veteran, the Raiders will bring in an experienced linebacker to lead a young group. 

    Winner: Unnamed Veteran/Perry Riley Jr.

Right Tackle

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    Austin Howard vs. Marshall Newhouse vs. Vadal Alexander vs. David Sharpe vs. Jylan Ware

    This particular position has the most contenders aiming for one spot. The Raiders will either turn the position over to a young developing player or a grizzled veteran. Due to tight end Lee Smith's presence on Carr's strong side, the offensive line can afford to allow an inexperienced right tackle to learn on the job.

    Austin Howard remains a question mark for training camp due to offseason surgeries, per NBCS Bay Area reporter Scott Bair. Marshall Newhouse comes off a season in which he lost his starting right tackle job after Week 2.

    Oakland should feature a young starter at the position if the talent level looks even across the board.

    The Raiders don't have to rush a rookie into the starting lineup. Vadal Alexander has five starts and a year in the system. The front office could also release Newhouse or Howard to open a roster spot at a position with a bigger need.

    Winner: Vadal Alexander

Interior Defensive Linemen

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    Denico Autry vs. Justin Ellis vs. Jihad Ward vs. Darius Latham vs. Eddie Vanderdoes vs. Treyvon Hester

    Instead of breaking down the tight end or weak-side inside linebacker spot, take a look at the interior across the defensive line. The Raiders' push to upgrade the run defense starts in this particular area. A more aggressive front line at the point of attack should help a weak linebacker corps and the defensive backs in coverage. The defense must get back to winning in the trenches.

    Due to the tremendous depth across the defensive front, Oakland will certainly rotate its starters throughout the season. The starting defenders for Week 1 won't necessarily earn the nod for every contest. We'll focus on the two interior linemen, who will receive the most snaps behind Mario Edwards Jr., assuming he stays healthy in his third season.

    Denico Autry enters a contract year. It's his chance at earning a lucrative deal on the 2018 free-agent market. He's logged close to 700 snaps in each of the last two seasons. The third-year defensive lineman takes the field with the intent on shrinking the pocket and roughing up the quarterback. Along with Edwards, he brings the pass-rush heat on the interior, and it's much needed.

    Nose tackle Justin Ellis may start the season on the interior, but he's a one-dimensional gap-stuffer who's going to lose significant snaps to versatile reserves at the position.

    On a Facebook Live session, Bair discussed Vanderdoes as a player who could walk into a sizeable role on the defensive line due to his raw strengths at the -30:15-mark.

    The UCLA product missed organized team activities and minicamp due to academic obligations, but it's more than enough down time to recover from any lingering injuries that limited him during his collegiate senior campaign.

    With more control over his weight, Vanderdoes could make an impact through training camp and the preseason to show potential to stake his claim for Ellis' spot.

    Before the injury, the 300-pounder handled two-gap assignments and pushed his way into the backfield for stops. Refreshed and in shape, Vanderdoes could bring the interior impact expected from Jihad Ward in the previous season. 

    Winners: Denico Autry and Eddie Vanderdoes