Breaking Down Oakland Raiders' Top 6 Position Battles

Brian Flores@@Raiders_TrackerContributor IIIMay 9, 2015

Breaking Down Oakland Raiders' Top 6 Position Battles

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Following an influx of talent, the Oakland Raiders must now go about the business of deciding who will start and who will be relegated to reserve roles.

    Despite coming off of a 3-13 season, much of the Oakland starting lineup is actually staying intact. And for several positions where there will be a change, such as middle linebacker, center and strong safety, the new starter is unquestioned.

    But there are still some positions on the roster where the starter is yet to be determined. Fortunately, the team now has multiple options at these positions, and it'll be up to the players to battle it out to try to secure the job.

    While the lineup can, and likely will, change during the season, these projections are for who will be starting for Oakland at the given position in Week 1 of the 2015 season.

Right Tackle: Austin Howard vs. Menelik Watson

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    The left side of Oakland's offensive line is solid heading into 2015. The exact opposite is true on the right side. Austin Howard, last year's starting right guard, has been moved back to his more natural position of right tackle. That doesn't show a lot of faith in Menelik Watson, who's yet to secure the starting role he was brought in to fill.

    The Candidates

    Austin Howard Menelik Watson
    6'7"Height6'5"
    330 pounds.Weight315 pounds.
    28Age26
    6th seasonExperience3rd season
    52Games Played17

    Howard: After turning into an effective two-year starter at right tackle for the New York Jets, the Raiders signed Howard to a 5-year, $30 million deal in 2014—to play right guard. Howard gradually improved his play at the position, but it was an unsuccessful move overall.

    When Jack Del Rio took over as head coach, one of his first decisions was to move Howard back to the outside to compete for the starting job. Howard's scheduled to make $6.4 million this upcoming season. That's starter money, not backup money, which means that Howard could very well be competing not just for a starting spot, but for his job.

    Watson: Watson was Oakland's second-round pick in the 2013 draft, and he was brought in to permanently take over at right tackle. But that hasn't come close to happening in two years. He spent most of his rookie year dealing with injuries. Last season, he was given the job once again, but his play was disappointing, and he was unable to secure the job.

    It was understood when Watson came out of college that he was something of a project. He was raw, and he needed to be coached up and gain some more experience. His development since entering the NFL has been too slow, and he still struggles with positioning and recognition. 2015 might be his last chance to earn the starting job.

    Projected Starter: Howard

    In 2014, after two years in the NFL, Watson still looked somewhat confused and unsure at times while on the field. He has the physical tools, but he still looks like a deer in the headlights when blocking. Given the minimal development he showed in the first two years, there isn't much hope that he'll make a significant jump from year two to year three.

    That's not to say that Howard will get the job by default. While not spectacular, Howard is a very solid NFL right tackle. He's reliable and effective. What Oakland needs from its offensive line is dependability down after down, and Howard can help make that happen. Howard isn't going to wow anyone at the position. But he will do the one thing the Raiders need him to do: get the job done.

    Barring a huge jump in development from Watson, Howard should win the starting job rather comfortably.

Cornerback: T.J. Carrie vs. Keith McGill

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Despite his history of injuries, D.J. Hayden is penciled in as Oakland's No. 1 cornerback for the upcoming season. If he can stay healthy—and given his first two years in the NFL, that's a big "if"—he's a lock to start. But who will start opposite Hayden remains a question. With no significant additions at the position either in free agency or through the draft, the competition comes down to T.J. Carrie and Keith McGill.

    The Candidates

    T.J. Carrie Keith McGill
    6'0"Height6'3"
    204 pounds.Weight211 pounds.
    24Age26
    2nd seasonExperience2nd season
    13Games Played12

    Carrie: While the national media hasn't paid much attention, T.J. Carrie's career is turning into something of a fairy tale NFL story. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 draft out of Ohio University, he was brought in primarily as a return specialist. While he played cornerback in college, he wasn't expected to contribute much in that role. at the next level.

    However, Carrie began to show as early as offseason camps that he had something to offer as a cornerback. He played in 13 games as a rookie. He did some special teams work, but he played mostly as a cornerback. Injuries to Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers forced Carrie into the starting lineup, and he played surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that the Raiders felt comfortable not adding any potential starters at cornerback through free agency.

    McGill: While Carrie made a name for himself in 2014, it was actually fellow rookie McGill that was expected to be the young cornerback to pair with Hayden. Projected by some to go as high as the second round, concerns regarding a shoulder injury dropped McGill to the fourth round, where Oakland picked him up.

    At 6'3", McGill embodies the new NFL cornerback. However, even at 26 years of age, he's still learning not just the NFL game, but his role as a cornerback as well. He played safety for part of his college career before moving to cornerback. He's also expected to play press-man coverage with Oakland, something he didn't have to do prior to entering the NFL. He played in 12 games as a rookie, but his snaps came mostly on special teams.

    Projected Starter: Carrie

    Even after Carrie began to see more reps as a cornerback, he was expected to play in the slot. Injuries forced him to the outside, and he was able to hold his own relatively well.

    This forced playing time gives Carrie a huge advantage for a couple of reasons. One, he earned valuable experience playing against top NFL wide receivers. Two, he played well, earning the confidence of the players around him and of the coaching staff.

    The ideal scenario for the Raiders might still be to eventually have McGill develop into the No. 2 cornerback role and to move Carrie to the slot. But for now, Carrie is more experienced and is a proven NFL cornerback by comparison. He's the clear option to start alongside Hayden.

Right Offensive Guard: Khalif Barnes vs. Jon Feliciano

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    The Raiders entered the draft with a need to fill at right guard. They waited until the fourth round to address the matter, and they did so by drafting Jon Feliciano. The only other option at the position currently on the roster is veteran jack-of-all-trades Khalif Barnes.

    The Candidates

     Khalif Barnes Jon Feliciano
    6'6"Height6'4"
    320 pounds.Weight323 pounds.
    33Age23
    11th seasonExperienceRookie season
    137Games Played0

    Barnes: Since joining Oakland in 2009, Barnes has turned into an important player for the team. He's never been the best offensive lineman. But what he has done is turn himself into a player capable of helping the team in several different roles. No matter where there's a gap along the offensive line, Barnes has been able to start at the position and perform effectively.

    Barnes hasn't received much of a vote of confidence from new head coach Jack Del Rio, who prefers to use Barnes not as a starter but as a swing player, ready to fill at any other spot along the offensive line. But that doesn't mean Barnes won't start. He's not an exciting name, but he's capable of getting the job done.

    Feliciano: Feliciano has the measurables and the attitude to be a starting guard in the NFL. He's a natural mauler, and there's a nastiness to his game that lends itself to effective play. On film, it's evident that he's a very good run-blocker, and he's just as solid in pass protection.

    What also jumps out on Feliciano's film is that he's a bit heavy-footed. Once he gets his hands on his man, he can push him around. But he struggles dealing with speed. This is why be projects as a guard. But even moving him to the inside of the offensive line won't be enough to mask this flaw in his game. He still has to learn how to deal with the speed and quickness he'll be facing.

    Projected Starter: Barnes

    If you haven't read Feliciano's story, you can check it out here. There's no way not to root for him after seeing all that he's been through to make it this far. He'll be the starter eventually. However, the fact is that Feliciano still has a way to go before he's capable of playing every down in the NFL.

    Feliciano's development will be very important not just over the summer and in camp, but through the beginning of the season. The job is his for the taking, and Del Rio will be ready to plug him in as soon as Feliciano can do the job.

    But to start the 2015 season, it'll be the unspectacular but effective Barnes manning the right guard position. No, it won't always be pretty. And if you've seen enough Raiders games, you know that it's just a matter of time before he gets called for a false start (although he was better in that department last season). Barnes isn't the exciting option. But he is the safer one. And to start the season, he's also the right one.

Tight End: Mychal Rivera vs. Clive Walford

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    The battle to be the starting tight end should be a good one in Oakland. The team added Lee Smith through free agency, but he'll be exclusively used as a blocking tight end. The battle to be the every down tight end will take place between last year's starter Mychal Rivera and rookie Clive Walford.

    The Candidates

     Mychal Rivera Clive Walford
    6'3"Height6'4"
    245 pounds.Weight251 pounds.
     24Age23
     3rd SeasonExperienceRookie season
    32Games Played0

    Rivera: As he heads into his third season as a pro, the story on Rivera remains mostly unchanged. He's a very good route-runner and pass-catcher, but he leaves a lot to be desired in the blocking department. However, he did improve that part of his game between his rookie season and last season. It's reasonable to expect that he'll show even more improvement this year.

    Another factor that Rivera has going for him is that he's durable. He's played in every game possible since joining the Raiders. He also wasn't handed the starting role—he played himself into it.

    Walford: The Raiders found arguably one of the steals in the draft when they picked up Walford in the third round. He has prototypical size for the position, and he has the speed and route-running ability that teams look for. He put in a lot of work in college to improve as a route-runner, a receiver and as a blocker, and the work paid off.

    Thanks to his well-rounded game, Walford provides the ability to play every down. He's a good blocker, and he's very dangerous running routes up the middle. What the Raiders found in the third wasn't just a player than can start in the future. They found a player that can step in on Day 1.

    Projected Starter: Walford

    Walford is a plug-and-play player. He's ready to start now, and he'll ultimately win out in his competition for the starting spot against Rivera. Walford is solid in every facet of his game, making him the most effective all-around option at tight end currently on the team.

    While he'll lose his starting spot, Rivera should still see plenty of action. In fact, this could actually benefit his career. He won't be asked to block as much. This will give him the opportunity to focus on the area of his game that he's best at, which is receiving.

    Ultimately, both Walford and Rivera should see plenty of playing time, and they have the ability to turn into one of the most dangerous tight end combinations in the NFL.

Running Back: Latavius Murray vs. Trent Richardson

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    The battle for the starting running back job in Oakland this summer should be fierce and exciting. Unlike almost every other position on the roster, there's no incumbent starter. Latavius Murray got a few starts late in 2014, but the job is by no means secured. The Raiders are heading into this summer with no favorite at the position. It'll be a wide-open competition, and the job is entirely up for grabs.

    The Candidates

    Latavius Murray Trent Richardson
    6'3"Height5'9"
    225 pounds.Weight225 pounds.
    25Age24
    3rd seasonExperience4th season
    15 Games Played46

    Murray: After spending his entire rookie season on injured reserve, Murray began the 2014 season struggling to find playing time behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. That tandem of big names was, to put it nicely, ineffective. Murray didn't really get a chance to play until Week 10, when he had 43 yards on four carries. The following week, he had his breakout performance, gaining 112 yards and two touchdowns on only four carries before being knocked out of the game with a concussion.

    The last four weeks of the season saw Murray get the most extensive playing time of his career. He had 68 carries while averaging 3.9 yards per attempt. Thus far, Murray's career is essentially comprised of six games. It's a very small sample, but he's impressed given the limited opportunities he's had.

    Richardson: A decent rookie season (950 yards, 11 touchdowns, 3.6 yards per carry) turned out to be Richardson's best season as a pro. His lack of vision on running plays is evident on film, and the results show it. He's looking at his signing in Oakland to be a turning point in his career, and the Raiders hope that turns out to be the case.

    It's never a good sign when you're on your third team in five years since entering the NFL as the third overall pick. That's the situation Richardson is in, and he has a long way to go in order to prove that the "bust" label doesn't apply to him.

    Projected Starter: Murray

    As great as it would be for Richardson to regain the form he showed while in college, that was a long time ago in football years. As of now, he's the same ineffective running back who can't see open running lanes that he's been for three years.

    Murray, on the other hand, has shown more potential more recently. While he's really only played six games as a running back in the NFL, he's exhibited good vision. And, as we saw last season in Week 11, he's a bona-fide big-play threat. More touches, plus an improved offensive line and passing game that has to be respected, are only going to increase his productivity.

    Murray is a true every-down back. He can run both on the outside and between the tackles. Richardson could be an effective change-of-pace back, but Murray will be the starter.

Wide Receiver: Rod Streater vs. Michael Crabtree

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    John Cordes/Associated Press

    What was one of Oakland's most frustrating position groups in 2014 is poised to be one of the most exciting in 2015. Amari Cooper will get most of the headlines. But what won't receive as much coverage is the addition of Michael Crabtree and the return of Rod Streater. Cooper is a lock to start. The question is who going to start with him.

    The Candidates

    Rod Streater Michael Crabtree
    6'3"Height6'1"
    195 pounds.Weight214 pounds.
    27Age27
    4th seasonExperience7th season
    35Games Played79

    Streater: Streater was poised for a breakout year in 2014. He was coming off of an impressive 2013 season, and he was set to be the team's No. 1 receiver. Unfortunately, a Week 3 foot injury cost him the rest of the year.

    The injury turned Streater into something of a forgotten man. In all of the discussion regarding Oakland's wide receivers, too often what was left out was Streater's return. He wasn't chosen to be the No. 1 receiver by default. He earned it. He has good speed and size. He also has good hands and has shown the ability to get open consistently. His return in 2015 will make a big difference.

    Crabtree: As the top-rated wide receiver in the 2009 draft following an exceptional college career, Crabtree was expected to enter the NFL and immediately become one of the league's top receiving threats. However, various injuries have hampered his career. He's put together only one 1,000-yard season in his six years as a pro. While still productive, he hasn't turned into the No. 1 receiver he was expected to be.

    But that's not to say that he hasn't been productive. He's turned into more of an underneath/possession receiver. This has allowed him to make use of exceptional hands on shorter routes and over the middle. While not always spectacular, Crabtree is still a very dangerous receiver. 

    Projected Starter: Streater

    Streater will start alongside Cooper for two primary reasons. First, he's currently a better NFL receiver than Crabtree, albeit by a slight margin. Second, Crabtree will be more dangerous in the Oakland offense as the slot receiver.

    What Streater brings to the offense is that he's a consistent threat. He had a very good 2013 season, and that was with Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin and Matt Flynn throwing the passes. Despite that unimpressive set of quarterbacks, Streater still put up 888 yards on 60 receptions (14.8 yards per catch). Just how good he was that season seems to have been forgotten. But Streater was turning into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. He'll be an excellent second option.

    Crabtree will still get plenty of touches in the slot, and he'll also be a great security blanket for Derek Carr. Cooper as the No. 1 receiver, Streater as the second option and Crabtree in the slot will in fact allow each of these receivers to maximize their abilities and to be as dangerous as possible.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from ESPN.com.

    What positions on the Oakland roster do think are up for grabs this offseason? Let me know what you think in the comments section below and on at Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

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