Biggest Surprises of Oakland Raiders' Offseason so Far
The Oakland Raiders have completed an especially important set of offseason activities. With a new coaching staff and lots of new faces, there are plenty of first impressions to be made and spots to be earned.
There's still a lot of time before the season, but now is the time when players can establish, or at least begin to establish, more prominent roles on the team. A good performance during offseason activities can provide a major advantage once the preseason gets going.
Offseason activities have to be taken in the proper context. No one's wearing pads, and there are a lot of new players going through the process of learning a new playbook. But several players have already made an impression, some good and some bad.
Here's a look at some of the more surprising developments from Oakland's offseason.
Linebackers Go from Weakness to Strength
Last season, linebacker was arguably Oakland's weakest position group. Things didn't start out that way, but the depth at the position was decimated by injuries over the course of the year.
Before the start of the 2014 season, the position group looked promising with the potential starting lineup of Khalil Mack, Sio Moore and Nick Roach. But Roach went down with a season-ending head injury in the preseason, and that turned out to be a sign of things to come.
Towards the end of the season, injuries to Kaluka Maiava and Moore left the Raiders with a starting linebacking group of Mack, Miles Burris and...anyone else who was healthy enough to walk.
The Raiders made a concerted effort to not let this happen again. Not only has the position been reinforced, but it's now arguably the deepest position group on the roster.
The Raiders addressed a glaring need at middle linebacker by bringing in a starter in Curtis Lofton. For depth, they signed Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, brought back Ray-Ray Armstrong (more on him later) and added intriguing prospects in Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball through the draft.
ESPN.com's Bill Williamson points out the Raiders are now so deep at linebacker, it's a very real possibility the team carries seven linebackers on the active roster:
The Raiders will have a difficult time cutting any of these players [Mack, Moore, Lofton, Armstrong, Smith, Heeney and Ball]. I just don’t see it happening. Smith and Armstrong are vying for real playing time in certain situations, and both could push Moore. Heeney and Ball -- both fifth-round picks -- were impressive in offseason workouts. Both have potential to play on defense down the road and both can help on special teams now.
Keeping seven linebackers might be a bit of a stretch, but it wouldn't be a surprise if it happened. And the fact this option has to be considered is a testament to how much the position group has improved.
It remains to be seen how this rebuild group will play together. But on paper, this is a much-improved unit, and it should play at or near its full potential under head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
In 2015, Oakland's linebackers could turn out to be the most dangerous, effective unit on the roster.
Emergence of Ray-Ray Armstrong
Speaking of Oakland's depth at linebacker, the starting lineup looks very strong: Khalil Mack at strong-side linebacker, Sio Moore at weak-side linebacker and new addition Curtis Lofton in the middle.
However, because Moore still hasn't fully recovered from hip surgery, he wasn't been able to be a full participant in offseason activities. This could open up the door for someone to step up, impress and challenge for the starting job.
But for a true position battle to take place, there has to be a viable challenger. Enter Ray-Ray Armstrong.
Aside from rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, Armstrong might be the name you heard the most coming out of offseason activities. Everyone seemed to have something good to say about his progress from last season, and the praise was coming from everywhere. Players and coaches have been very impressed with Armstrong's play.
This has been a constant theme. Back in March, JustBlogBaby.com's Chase Rutting noted when veteran Justin Tuck was asked to name a player who had impressed during the offseason, his response was Armstrong.
Months later, it's more of the same. In a recent interview with Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson, CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair said of Armstrong, "This coaching staff absolutely loves him."
Armstrong has shown a lot of potential as a pass-rusher and a run-stopper, and his background as a defensive back in college also makes him strong in pass coverage. He's starting to make a strong case for a big jump in playing time.
A healthy Moore will be able to comfortably secure the starting weak-side linebacker job. But if his recovery drags on, Armstrong will become a serious contender for this spot.
At the very least, Armstrong has made a lot progress and should see a much more prominent role this upcoming season.
Clive Walford the Favorite to Start at Tight End
The fact Clive Walford is in contention to win the starting tight end job isn't a surprise in and of itself. What is somewhat surprising is that he's not only in contention, but as of now, he's looking like the favorite.
Incumbent Mychal Rivera has been a solid tight end since entering the league. The issue is that he's been one-dimensional. While he's a very good receiver, he's somewhat of a liability as a blocker. This makes him effective situationally, but it's kept him from being a reliable every-down tight end. And as of now, it looks like this is the player he'll always be.
This isn't the case with Walford. In college, he proved to be an effective blocker. He's also a very dangerous route-runner and receiver. In other words, he's the every-down tight end Rivera isn't.
ESPN.com's Bill Williamson sees Walford as the favorite to secure the top spot on the tight end depth chart:
Walford has been a standout in the offseason program. He has been smooth and has shown an ability to stretch the field. There is hope inside the Raiders' building that Walford can become an instant impact player and become the second best option for Carr behind Cooper early in his career. While Rivera will have a role, it will likely be as Walford's backup. If Walford is not already starting in Week 1, it shouldn't be too much longer after that.
Walford's emergence doesn't mean Rivera will be buried in the depth chart. He's still a dangerous pass-catcher. But with what Walford has shown so far, he's setting himself up to take on the majority of the responsibility at tight end.
As Williamson points out, Walford might not be the starter Week 1. But the job is his for the taking, and he will be Oakland's starting tight end sooner rather than later.
Most rookies experience some growing pains when they first enter the NFL due to the jump in competition. So far, that hasn't really been the case for Walford. That could change in the preseason once players actually put on the pads.
But for now, Walford is the favorite the win the starting job, and he's ahead in the competition by a surprisingly comfortable margin.
Jon Feliciano Not in Contention to Start
Heading into the draft, one of Oakland's biggest needs was at right guard. To address this issue, the Raiders took Jon Feliciano in the fourth round. He was expected to immediately challenge for the starting job.
But so far, things haven't gone as planned. When offseason activities opened up, it was veteran Khalif Barnes that was taking the first-team reps.
The Raiders also added free agent J'Marcus Webb, and he's now leapfrogged ahead of both Barnes and Feliciano. According ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, "[J]ourneyman J'Marcus Webb was working ahead of both him [Feliciano] and veteran Khalif Barnes during the minicamp."
That means as of now, Feliciano isn't even the backup. He's sitting at third on the right guard depth chart. For a player that was expected to compete to be the starter, Feliciano hasn't made much of an impact.
With the start of the season still a few months away, Feliciano still has time to impress the coaches and climb back up the depth chart. And given he's a rookie and a fourth-round pick, it wouldn't be a surprise or a bad thing if he needs more time to develop.
But for now, it's been a disappointing start for a player that many hoped would be the permanent solution at right guard as soon as this season.
D.J. Hayden Out, Keith McGill In?
Things seemed to finally be going well for D.J. Hayden. His first two seasons were derailed by injuries. But this year, that hasn't been an issue. He's been able to stay healthy, and he's been able to show off some of the physical ability that led to the Raiders taking him in the first round of the 2013 draft.
All signs seem to point to Hayden finally securing Oakland's No. 1 cornerback spot. This is the year when Hayden finally makes the Raiders look smart for selecting him. Right?
When Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson asked which players on Oakland's roster had their stock rising, CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair replied with second-year man Keith McGill, who received first-team reps during Oakland's three-day minicamp. But what has to be noted is that McGill was taking those first-team reps from Hayden.
McGill's sudden rise is surprising. What's even more surprising is Hayden's apparent drop.
It's difficult to judge at this time what it means that some of Hayden's first-team reps are going to McGill. It's possible the coaching staff has been very impressed with McGill, and he's in contention for a starting spot. But it's also possible it's the offseason, and the coaches just want to get a closer look at a different player.
Either way, it's a cause for concern. This is supposed to be the time when Hayden leaves no doubt about his role in the defense. Instead, he appears to be battling for playing time against an unproven player.
That's not what you want to see from your former first-round pick in his third season.
What do you think are the biggest surprises from Oakland's offseason? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.