Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Each Oakland Raiders Rookie
For NFL rookies, it's important to hit the ground running. A strong start could be the difference between a successful career and never getting a shot to see the field. The Oakland Raiders have plenty of roster opportunities up for the taking—and they'll be open to overachieving rookies.
When it comes to developing talent, positional depth and the "next man up" mentality benefits the unknown with great potential. Inevitably, some rookies will pan out to be great, others will prove to be serviceable in limited roles and some will never get the chance to prove themselves at all.
We'll take a close look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for Raiders rookies—including one undrafted free agent—and forecast an outlook on the crucial beginnings of their careers.
Best-case scenario: Amari Cooper has the ability to enter the league on fire and rack up 900-1,000 yards with eight or more touchdowns.
Worst-case scenario: I have reservations about offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. In seven years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, only two of his teams were ranked in the top half of the league in scoring. His highest-ranked offense was 14th. In other words, he doesn't have a track record for engineering high-powered offenses—because of this, Cooper's numbers may not be as great as expected.
Forecast: Players play, but coaches draw up the plays. This isn't Alabama, where you give the ball to your best player and allow him to dominate. Cooper won't be asked to carry the offense as he did during his junior year in college.
Most people can't name the second-best receiver behind Cooper on the 2014 Alabama team, and for good reason. DeAndrew White only had 40 receptions for 504 receiving yards compared to Cooper's 124 receptions for 1,727 yards.
Now he's going to be splitting receptions with Rod Streater, Michael Crabtree and a probable mixture of Andre Holmes, Brice Butler and undrafted free agent Josh Harper.
Cooper will still have great production as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver. Musgrave must be creative to push Cooper's production near 1,000 receiving yards and eight TDs. He needs to line Cooper up in various places to optimize his production.
The Raiders offense has the potential to be high-octane, but Musgrave has to figure things out. Cooper's talent should overcome Musgrave's mishaps, and he'll lead the team in catches, yards and touchdowns. Keep in mind, the ball will be spread amongst other talented players. He'll fall short of 1,000 yards in his rookie year and consistently pass that mark year after year.
Mario Edwards Jr.
Best-case scenario: Mario Edwards Jr. is talented enough to become a solid defensive end when he's motivated. Weight loss will help him become a versatile defensive lineman with the added ability to play as a hybrid linebacker ("Leo").
Worst-case scenario: Edwards' lack of motivation is scary. What will happen when he's paid millions with a fat contract? Will his play drop off with complacency? Will he fully commit week to week in good games as well as blowout losses? A lack of passion could hurt his career tremendously.
You can teach technique, but coaches cannot teach passion for the game. If Edwards' attitude and weight struggles continue, he could find himself on the scrap heap within two to three years.
Forecast: Fortunately for Edwards, he's entering a good situation in Oakland. Head coach Jack Del Rio is a great defensive mind, and linebackers coach Sal Sunseri is familiar with Edwards from his two-year stint at Florida State.
Furthermore, CSN Bay Area reporter Scott Bair points out that a slimmed-down Edwards could be used as defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.'s hybrid DE/LB that has worked so well in Seattle, where Norton was previously a linebackers coach:
"He's at prime weight to play the Raiders' LEO position, a concept imported from coordinator Ken Norton's Seattle Seahawks background, which is a weak-side edge rusher. He's excited about the role and his ability to contribute [to] the Raiders defense."
According to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, Edwards finds motivation in proving the naysayers, like myself, wrong. He'll flash some of the talent he has been hiding for over two years with a purpose.
My concern isn't his rookie year—it's every season after proving doubters wrong. He was a second-round selection. He's expected to make a difference consistently year after year. It's hard to see that in him after underachieving for so long.
You either love to play the game or you don't. Your job isn't done after proving people wrong. The key is consistency.
Edwards will maintain the edge as a run-stopper, but he'll leave much to be desired as a pass-rusher.
Best-case scenario: Clive Walford will claim the starting tight end position well before the end of the offseason. His blocking skills alone should be enough to leapfrog Mychal Rivera on the depth chart.
Worst-case scenario: Walford cannot fall into the category as just a receiving tight end. That's the reason Rivera will likely lose his starting position.
Walford could potentially develop into a more balanced TE than each of the aforementioned players. His ability to lead block will certainly help running back Latavius Murray when he finds the edge and turns the corner on the defense.
According to Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post via Twitter, Walford is also dangerous as a deep threat:
The Raiders drafted a complete package at the TE position. He'll bolster both run blocking and pass-protection schemes while serving as a solid red-zone threat as a big target.
Best-case scenario: According to Cal Setar of HNGN.com, Del Rio expects his top four draft picks to start Week 1 of the season. The guard position is a weak area on the Raiders roster, giving Jon Feliciano a golden opportunity to start immediately.
Worst-case scenario: If Feliciano doesn't win the starting job over Khalif Barnes, who's naturally an offensive tackle, it doesn't bode well for him going forward. The Raiders may draft even higher on a guard next season if both Feliciano and Barnes struggle.
Forecast: The Raiders have big bodies on the offensive line, which aids Trent Richardson, who flourished behind a large offensive line in Cleveland and during his college days at Alabama. Feliciano winning the starting position is also about reviving the Raiders rushing attack as much it's about reviving Richardson's career.
Considering that Barnes is 33 years old and performed so poorly at guard last year, why wouldn't the Raiders take a look at developing a rookie right away? There's very little competition at the position, and Feliciano should see the field early and often with the starters.
Best-case scenario: Ben Heeney has the ability to move from special teamer to starter if Curtis Lofton disappoints. That transition won't happen right away. However, it's important to note that all of Lofton's guaranteed money comes in the first year of his contract—meaning the Raiders could release him after this season, clearing his contract completely off the books. One terrible season for Lofton could open the door for Heeney.
Worst-case scenario: Heeney is criticized for being an undersized inside linebacker at 6'0", 231 pounds who lacks coverage skills. It's possible that he never advances above a special teams player.
Forecast: Miles Burris' absence—he was released shortly after the draft—is big for Heeney. He's going to absorb those extra snaps and will get a fair opportunity to line up next to Lofton in 3-4 sub-packages.
Heeney is an instinctive player who will flash some pass-rush ability while blowing up running backs in the backfield. He has the ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses, and it will show early as Oakland tinkers with its defensive alignments early in the season.
The Raiders haven't revealed whether or not they'll switch to a 3-4 base defense, but Heeney will have enough opportunity to flash his talents between special teams and 3-4 sub-packages.
Best-case scenario: Neiron Ball could fit into the Raiders defense as a hybrid DE/LB ("Leo") if he bulks up a bit to play on the defensive line. He has experience as a linebacker in college. If Norton helps Ball develop his pass-rushing moves, he could become a force as a speedy edge-rusher.
Worst-case scenario: Ball has overcome football injuries and life-threatening ailments. He shows the requisite toughness, but he's also prone to becoming a fixture on the sideline. As harsh as it sounds, availability is the first step to becoming an impact player. If Ball is prone to constant setbacks, he could be deemed unreliable in the long term.
Forecast: Ball will hang around a bit but ultimately end up a special teams player. He's more of a LB than a DE, and the Raiders are stacked at linebacker. He'll have a better chance at making an impact if he learns to play on the defensive line, but he has a long way to go in making that transition. He's a project who will cling on to a reserve role because of the motor he brings on special teams coverage.
Best-case scenario: Max Valles has a proven track record as a pass-rusher and could translate that skill set to the NFL level under Norton's guidance. He can record double-digits sack totals if he continues to develop his pass-rushing moves.
Worst-case scenario: After playing just two seasons at Virgina, Valles is young and still a raw talent. For that reason, he may get placed on the backburner, labeled as too raw to hit the field.
Forecast: The Raiders are in need of another pass-rusher, which is why Khalil Mack will step outside of his natural position as an outside linebacker and play snaps at DE in the upcoming season. The Raiders need Valles' skill set right now. This would be a great time to substitute him in for Justin Tuck intermittently in hopes of grooming the Virginia product into a full-time DE.
Norton will find a way to get Valles on the field in rotation. He identifies more so as a DE than a LB, and a lack of depth at the position helps Valles' potential rate of progress. He'll flash skills on a minimal basis and flourish as the sun sets on Tuck's career.
Best-case scenario: Anthony Morris could find himself in a contested battle for the starting job at right tackle. Menelik Watson has been a disappointment and Austin Howard hasn't produced one decent season at the position in his career.
Worst-case scenario: Unlike the guard position, the Raiders have plenty of tackles on the roster. General manager Reggie McKenzie's first ever draft pick, Tony Bergstrom, remains despite only starting one game in three seasons. Oakland also signed veterans Matt McCants and J'Marcus Webb, per ESPN.com.
Forecast: Morris has the ability to become a starting tackle in the NFL, but very few eyes witnessed him dominate at Tennessee State. He has to beat out heavy competition to get minimal reps. He'll likely end up on the practice squad, and another team may provide an opportunity the Raiders couldn't with all the depth on the roster.
Best-case scenario: Andre Debose is well-known for his kick-return ability. He'll have to be at least serviceable as a receiver to be a mainstay on the roster. A reliable set of hands would make Debose a dangerous deep threat in four- and five-receiver sets.
Worst-case scenario: Debose could be a one-trick pony. The problem with a one-dimensional returner is the kickoff returns don't impact the game as they did three to four seasons ago. The Devin Hesters of the world have lost significant value.
Forecast: The Miami receiver will of course return kicks and punts. The Raiders have enough depth at receiver, which hurts Debose's opportunity to contribute in that area. He's a special teams player who will make his mark on punt returns to shorten the field for the offense.
Best-case scenario: Oakland's cornerback pecking order is still fluid. The lack of experience at the position creates a perfect opportunity for a rookie to come in, impress the coaching staff and earn significant time on the field. Dexter McDonald could play in nickel packages to get acclimated within the defense.
Worst-case scenario: The Raiders re-signed Neiko Thorpe, who's capable of playing the same physical style as McDonald. The rookie from Kansas can't afford to fall too far behind the players at his position. McDonald's competition is young. James Dockery is the oldest of the Raiders cornerbacks at 26. If any of the CBs solidify a starting spot, the Kansas rookie could be waiting a long time for another opportunity.
Forecast: McDonald flashed enough talent at Kansas to get a fair chance to play in nickel or dime coverages in his rookie year. He has the ability and the moxie to be a decent CB in the league, but he must work on covering deep patterns. He'll spend a lot of time practicing against Cooper and learning from Charles Woodson to expedite his learning curve. The payoff won't be noticeable until another two or three years.
Best-case scenario: The Raiders have depth at wide receiver, but Harper could develop into the most versatile threat in the slot. His past history catching passes from Derek Carr gives his upside a boost.
Worst-case scenario: Andre Holmes and Brice Butler are still on the team and hurt Harper's chance at maintaining a roster spot in Oakland. Holmes led the Raiders in receiving yards (693) in 2014. Butler is a former seventh-round pick who showed flashes in a very limited role with 21 receptions for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Forecast: Musgrave will have to find a way to spread the ball around. Harper will make the final roster, but he won't have a significant impact until 2016, when either or both of Streater and Crabtree—who are entering contract years—are playing for new teams.
Injuries could extend Harper's playing time in his rookie season, but there's only one ball to go around for six capable wide receivers and a receiving TE.
The presence of Cooper as the potential No. 1 option going forward will lead to a mediocre season for Crabtree or Streater. Furthermore, their expiring contracts will ultimately create opportunities for reserves like Harper beyond the 2015 season.
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