Complete Oakland Raiders Training Camp Preview
The increased rhythmic vibration in the pulse of Raider Nation signifies the opening of training camp for the Oakland Raiders.
Rookies are already working through drills and the veterans check in on Thursday to begin the start of a journey that’s sure to show substantial improvement in the franchise. Friday is the official start of training camp for Jack Del Rio's regime.
In the next couple of weeks, observations and developments will come in fast and furious as players work hard to establish their positions and fulfill their roles.
Before all the fun begins, we’ll tie in all pertinent aspects to look out for with training camp underway. Here’s a complete preview of the Raiders training camp before competition leads to attrition, whittling down to a 53-man regular-season roster.
Key Position Battles
ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson outlines the front-runners to the most competitive position battles, but we’ll dig a bit deeper on the competitors within each position battle.
Cornerback: D.J. Hayden vs. Keith McGill
This is the most contentious battle because it involves a former first-round pick. Cornerback D.J. Hayden hopes to finally fulfill expectations that general manager Reggie McKenzie envisioned when he drafted the cornerback out of Houston. After two injury-riddled seasons, Hayden finds himself in a highly competitive battle with former fourth-round pick Keith McGill.
McGill is perceived as a cornerback capable of physical play and primed to excel in bump-and-run coverage. He has very limited playing experience, taking 147 snaps in his rookie season, per Pro Football Focus, but hopes to make a big leap in his second year.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has already decided to share first-team reps between the two cornerbacks, which indicates an extensive workload for both players during training camp. Hayden isn’t a lock to start Week 1. He’ll have to impress the new coaching staff and earn his spot.
Right tackle: Menelik Watson vs. Austin Howard
The Raiders are heavily invested in both offensive tackles. Menelik Watson is a former second-round pick. Austin Howard signed a five-year, $30 million deal in 2014.
This position battle boils down to potential upside and veteran experience. Oakland could find out what they have in Watson in hopes he’s a gem who's still a little rough around the edges. They can also go with Howard, who has clear strengths and weaknesses.
This past season Howard started at right guard. He allowed five sacks but graded as a much stronger run-blocker, per PFF. Watson still needs to perfect his handwork and footwork as a developmental prospect. Howard might become a solid backup or a fill-in at right guard to help the rushing attack if Watson shows overall improvement throughout camp.
Right guard: J’Marcus Webb vs. Khalif Barnes
J’Marcus Webb came out of thin air to lead this competition. This would have been Khalif Barnes’ position to lose. Neither of the choices seems promising for the Raiders. Webb hasn’t played a snap at offensive guard, but his 6’7”, 335-pound frame fits the measurements of an interior lineman.
Barnes started 29 of the last 32 games on the offensive line. He’s the safest choice at right guard but is a below-average starter. Barnes gave up seven sacks in the past two seasons, per PFF, but still serves as a better option than a tackle who never played the position in Webb.
The Raiders entered the offseason with a major talent void at guard and that void still remains, barring an extremely impressive camp from rookie guard Jon Feliciano. Webb struggled tremendously as a tackle for three years with the Chicago Bears before falling into an obscure backup role with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Rookie Microscope
Here are the rookies who’ll practice under the microscope with high expectations of contributing during Week 1 of the regular season in significant roles.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper is receiving all types of accolades before running a route in the NFL. Hall of Fame wide receiver and Raider great Tim Brown thinks Cooper is destined for greatness and will be dominant from the moment he steps onto the field.
Another Hall of Fame wide receiver, Jerry Rice, designates Cooper as the Raiders' new Tim Brown. Ironically, both Hall of Famers giving praise were active players for the Raiders in their last Super Bowl appearance.
The excitement is understandable based on Cooper's impressive showing during minicamp and organized team activities. Nonetheless, Cooper must work within an offense willing to maximize his skills. Hopefully offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave finds creative ways to showcase Cooper’s versatility and talent.
Will defensive end Mario Edwards develop a skill set for chasing down quarterbacks? Is he a "Leo" hybrid linebacker? Is he a poor fit for the Raiders' 4-3 defense that lacks more than one prominent pass-rusher?
There are many questions surrounding Edwards. On paper, it doesn’t look good for the Florida State defensive lineman, but the Raiders see an athletic versatile defensive lineman capable of disrupting an offense.
It’s evident Edwards didn’t show off his edge-rushing skills at Florida State, but he poses a threat in gobbling up ball-carriers veering his way. The Raiders will need more than a run-stopper and gap-stuffer at defensive end.
The Raiders entered the offseason with a specific need for pass-rushers on the defensive line. As a result, Edwards must prove to pose a threat in the pass rush to validate Oakland's high investment in him.
Third-round pick Clive Walford’s tight end battle with Mychal Rivera isn’t as intense as the three position battles previously mentioned. Rivera lacks the versatility as an extra blocker on the offensive line in comparison to Walford.
The Raiders made it clear they wanted to go in a different direction at tight end by openly showing interest in Jermaine Gresham earlier in the offseason and then drafting a tight end in the third round.
Walford will likely start Week 1. His upside may propel him to become quarterback Derek Carr’s second-best option within the offense. He racked up 676 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in a breakout senior year at Miami. The Raiders are hoping his uptick in production continues as a trend rather than a blip.
The Raiders signed four veterans to inject the starting lineup with experience and proven talent to mix with their young developing core.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was the first upgrade for the offense. He’s the most proven receiver on the roster and provides Carr with a solid threat, especially inside the 20-yard line, at 6’2”, 215 pounds.
In his best season as a focal point in the San Francisco 49ers offense, he recorded 1,105 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Crabtree’s development with Carr is crucial to the Raiders getting off to a good start on offense. He could emerge as the primary receiving threat in the beginning of the season as Cooper and Walford get their feet wet as pros.
Former Arizona Cardinals nose tackle Dan Williams (6’3”, 315 lbs) will play alongside a larger running mate in Justin Ellis (6’2”, 334 lbs) within a 4-3 alignment.
The high degree of difficulty in containing these two beasts may allow the Raiders to apply pressure up the middle. Williams poses as the more nimble defensive tackle capable of making a beeline to the quarterback.
Training camp gives a glimpse of Williams and Ellis working together in the middle as a solid obstruction to the rushing attack and possibly a disruptive pair for opposing quarterbacks.
Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton’s lackluster performance with the New Orleans Saints over the past three seasons creates a slight concern that he might have lost a step.
However, the seven-year veteran was released as the team’s leading tackler, which indicates the possibility of a schematic mismatch within the Saints defense. The Raiders finally have a natural inside linebacker playing the position after two seasons of outside linebacker Miles Burris filling in for an injured Nick Roach.
Lofton gets the opportunity to integrate himself within a defense that potentially suits his skills as a keen run-stopper with a limited range on his pass-coverage abilities. Most importantly, he's a proven field general with sharp football instincts.
Safety Nate Allen’s best attributes will become evident when the Raiders need a game-changing turnover to get the offense back on the field.
He doesn’t provide the best coverage, but Norton will push him to grab interceptions instead of knockdowns during training camp. None of the top three cornerbacks on the depth chart exhibits a history of compiling interceptions, which places pressure on Allen and Charles Woodson to create turnovers.
In 2014, Woodson led the team with four interceptions. In the upcoming season, look for Allen to grab four more interceptions to match his total from the previous season.
The Raiders need Allen at 100 percent during training camp. He concluded mandatory minicamp unable to practice with an undisclosed injury, per SilverandBlackPride.com's Levi Damien:
"Nate Allen has been out the past two days. Jack Del Rio wouldn't comment on the severity of the injury or whether he thinks Allen will be available for training camp. In Allen's absence, Brandian Ross took his place with the first-team defense."
Personnel Questions Heading into Training Camp
Del Rio wasn’t so forthcoming with information on projected lineups or personnel moves, leaving a lot of room for speculation on roster alignment and schemes. Here’s some perspective on how Del Rio should answer these pertinent questions.
Where will Mack line up? Will Norton use the 3-4 defense?
It’s assumed the Raiders will run a 4-3 alignment, although there are many benefits to utilizing the 3-4 as a base. The ability to unleash outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Sio Moore (when healthy) as pass-rushers is the premium benefit.
The defense would also benefit most from utilizing Mack in a variety of ways, including defensive end in certain packages and outside linebacker in other situations, to keep the offense guessing. He’s a multitalented player with the potential to change the complexion of a football game with sacks, run stopping or short-range coverage. Mack shouldn’t be confined to a particular role on the field.
Norton should mix and match schemes by using the 3-4 alignment to bring pocket pressure, and the 4-3 on short-yardage situations to defend the run.
Who takes role of second-best pass-rusher?
Benson Mayowa and Max Valles are both capable of earning extra snaps in a rotation with Justin Tuck at defensive end.
The Raiders defense must garner respect from opposing offensive lines as a unit capable of collapsing the pocket. Valles isn’t on the fast track to training camp development sitting behind Mayowa on the depth chart, but his sack production at Virginia show his potential to become a training camp sleeper.
Where does Marcel Reece fit in?
According to ESPN’s Adam Caplan, the Raiders offense won’t feature a fullback but plans to add an extra tight end to the design in the form of an H-back.
Marcel Reece will take on this new role and presents a solid threat as an extra receiver on the field. He'll be positioned slightly behind the offensive line within the formation. Reece is capable of bulldozing defenders while accumulating significant yards after the catch.
Where do Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball fit in?
Neiron Ball projects as the proverbial Swiss army knife capable of lining up as an inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end or contributing to special teams.
Ball’s role hasn’t been defined, but Norton might keep it that way to further assess his strong points on the field. Initially, he’ll contribute on special teams. The creativity in his role will develop as the season progresses.
Both Ball and Ben Heeney are instinctive linebackers with short-range coverage skills capable of executing on pass and run plays. The frequent use of the 3-4 could indicate more playing time for both rookies. Heeney will see more snaps in the 3-4 initially as a prototypical inside linebacker capable of setting up a defense, per Williamson.
More Opportunities at Weak-Side Linebacker
According to Caplan, outside linebacker Sio Moore was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list.
McKenzie phrased Moore’s procedure as “major surgery” on his hip, per CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair. Unfortunately, his estimated return for the third-year linebacker was inaccurate. Frankly, it’s nothing to fret about. Drop your panic levels, Raider Nation.
The team doesn’t expect Moore to remain on the PUP list for an extended amount of time. He’s not incapacitated due to the surgery. He performed some light work before the layoff and should be fine, per Bair:
The Raiders don't expect Moore to be on PUP long, and aren't worried about his delayed start.
Moore was a limited participant late in the Raiders offseason program. He stuck to individual drills during some OTAs, but graduated to some team drills in a June mandatory minicamp, though he was held out for the final practice.
If Moore remains on the PUP list throughout preseason, then it’s time to worry about the individual player, but not the linebacker corps.
Oakland’s stable of linebackers is the deepest unit on the roster. Ray-Ray Armstrong had an impressive showing during minicamp and OTAs, per Eddie Paskal of Raiders.com. The Raiders also signed talented but underutilized linebacker Malcolm Smith. Finally, they drafted two hybrid-type defensive players in Ball and Valles. The Raiders have endless options in divvying Moore’s first-team reps, which further strengthens the depth at the position.
Recent standout performances would indicate Armstrong would get a large portion of Moore's first-team reps. On the other hand, Smith previously played under Norton, who was a linebacker coach with the Seattle Seahawks.
In 2013, Smith started eight games at outside linebacker and recorded six passes defensed, one sack, one forced fumble and two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown.
Both Smith and Armstrong are solid options to run with the starters until Moore is ready to take the field.
Undrafted Free Agents Replacing Veterans?
This is an unfamiliar topic for most NFL teams, but the Raiders have a few undrafted free agents who will push veterans to the brink during training camp.
UFA Michael Dyer vs. veteran Trent Richardson
This competition has a multilayered plot. Running back Trent Richardson is competing to simply prove he’s still a viable NFL talent after two years of disappointment with two different teams. Richardson attempts to revitalize his career on his third NFL team after walking across the stage as a No. 3 overall pick three years ago.
The Richardson experiment isn't off to a good start, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Vic Tafur. The window of opportunity could be closing on Richardson's time in Oakland.
Running back Michael Dyer’s impressive performances on the practice field could push Richardson off the roster. If the Raiders see Dyer as a legitimate No. 2 option at running back, Richardson likely falls to No. 4. Why? Because Roy Helu Jr. has a special skill set as a pass-catching running back capable of exploiting mismatches in coverage. Essentially, Dyer’s rise could spell Richardson’s demise.
UFA wide receivers Josh Harper and Austin Willis
It’s safe to say Cooper, Crabtree, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes will hold as the Raiders' top four receivers. The fifth and sixth spots are open.
Both undrafted free-agent wide receivers Josh Harper and Austin Willis will contend for a spot on the 53-man roster. Harper will vie primarily for a wide receiver spot with a past history with Carr in his favor. The Raiders hope to reinvent their Fresno State chemistry on the professional level.
Special teams duties also provides Willis with an opportunity to contribute to the Raiders 2015 season. Willis practiced returning punts during mandatory minicamp, per Damien.
Veteran wide receivers Brice Butler and Kenbrell Thompkins
On the other side of the coin, wide receivers Brice Butler and Kenbrell Thompkins must approach training camp as an audition to make the roster. Despite their three-year veteran status, it’s not a given either receiver makes the final roster. Unlike the undrafted wide receivers, the veteran receivers haven't been discussed as potential kick returners.
Butler accumulated an underwhelming 21 catches for 280 receiving yards and two touchdowns as the No. 3 wide receiver on the depth chart for the majority of the 2014 season. The Raiders may opt to cut ties with him as a No. 5 option in favor of a player more familiar with Carr to optimize production.
The Raiders aren’t heavily invested in Thompkins after claiming him off waivers during the previous season. Oakland could release the third-year pro and recoup his $585,000 salary.
Training camp will likely sort out two of the four receivers as part of the 53-man roster.
What will grab your attention during Raiders training camp? All comments are welcome below. Follow Maurice Moton on Twitter for Raiders news.
Player measurements courtesy of Raiders.com.