Oakland Raiders: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
As Oakland Raiders training camp heats up, the practices continue to provide clues on the personnel likely to start in the upcoming season.
Head coach Jack Del Rio continues to keep his post-practice press conference answers short and vague when assessing the development of his players. The real evidence in player development lies within the on-field personnel and who continues to earn reps.
Schematic designs are beginning to take shape on both sides of the ball as players focus on getting better at what they do on the field.
A new position battle is materializing on the defensive side, while the offensive personnel is becoming a more defined snapshot.
Here are some reports and observations from the first week of Raiders training camp.
Khalil Mack Playing Almost Exclusively at Defensive End
At first, it seemed odd to move Pro Football Focus' best outside linebacker away from his primary position into a new role, but that’s what it has come to in Oakland.
According to CSNBayArea.com reporter Scott Bair, linebacker Khalil Mack could play at defensive end for the majority of the 2015 season:
Mack’s been working a ton at defensive end during training camp, in the base defense, sub packages and even during individual drills.
That will likely be his primary spot during the regular season. The Raiders have outside linebacker depth to function without him. They’re thin up at end and could use Mack’s presence opposite Justin Tuck.
Many people took the bait when Mack initially claimed his role wouldn’t change, but coaches aren’t going to outright reveal their season plans during organized team activities. The Raiders knew their pass rush remained one of their weak points and decided to place their best defensive player in position to rectify that issue.
Mack compiled 28.5 sacks at Buffalo in college. The Raiders couldn't resist strengthening their defensive line with a productive pass-rusher closer to the snap.
The second-year linebacker could post career numbers in sacks as a defensive end playing alongside defensive tackles Dan Williams and Justin Ellis gobbling up blocks in the middle.
What happens to second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr.? According to San Francisco Chronicle writer Vic Tafur, it was Mack starting opposite of Justin Tuck sans Edwards on the defensive line. It’s possible the Raiders don’t have enough faith in Edwards providing a consistent pass rush in base defenses.
What a shocker (not really).
Linebacker Position Battles
Linebacker Sio Moore’s recovery from injury and Mack’s role as a defensive end open a fierce camp competition at linebacker.
According to Bair, Moore returned to camp playing with the second team while linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Malcolm Smith filled in with the first-team defense.
This doesn’t come as a surprise. Armstrong had a strong offseason leading into training camp, and Mack’s transition opens an opportunity at the strong-side linebacker position.
Moore should eventually reclaim his position as the weak-side linebacker, but general manager Reggie McKenzie says that's not a given, via Bair:
You can’t just say, ‘Remember what I did last year?’ That’s not how it works. This is a ‘What can you do for me now’ kind of league. I don’t think he has a mountain to climb. He just has to get out there and play and show that he can stay healthy for the whole preseason. If he does that, he should be fine. But he can’t rest on his laurels. It’s competitive out here.
Smith’s opportunities at strong-side linebacker outweigh Armstrong’s opportunities at weak-side linebacker.
As Moore recovers, getting closer to 100 percent, he should regain his starting position on the weak side with Armstrong earning some snaps in between. Expect to see Smith on the field on the strong side when Mack lines up as a defensive end.
Raiders Sticking with Offensive Line Configuration
According to Bair, the Raiders continue to start the same five guys on the offensive line from OTAs and minicamp: Donald Penn, Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, J’Marcus Webb and Menelik Watson. Bair also revealed a clear picture for a potential Week 1 regular-season lineup:
Webb is working with the first unit right now. Rookie fourth-round pick Jon Feliciano is a long-term option there, but has played second-team left guard to this point and could end up a reserve interior lineman. Khalif Barnes has played inside, but is bouncing around and working almost exclusively at tackle through five camp practices.
Rookie guard Jon Feliciano isn’t even getting snaps at right guard through five training camp practices, and it’s safe to say he’s out of the right guard competition for the upcoming season.
The fact that Khalif Barnes takes a majority of his snaps as a tackle confirms that offensive line coach Mike Tice has pushed all his chips onto Webb as the starting right guard.
That revelation should make any Raiders fan shudder a bit. He has been inactive for two years and ventures into a new position. Get ready for the possibility of seeing Austin Howard at right guard once again.
Speaking of Howard, he took reps with the first team during Thursday’s practice in place of Watson, who was seen working with trainers on the sidelines, per Silver & Black Pride's Levi Damien.
Latavius Murray Primed to Lead Backfield
Finally, running back Latavius Murray can develop his game in a complete offseason and start the season 100 percent.
According to Tafur, McKenzie said health was the main reason it took three years for Murray to take over the starting position.
A foot injury in his rookie year along with an ankle injury and concussion in his second year cut into his touches, but Murray looks primed for a breakout season with a clean bill of health in 2015.
Murray worked hard in the offseason to carve out his role as the front-running lead back on the roster, and it's translating on the practice field, per CSN Bay Area reporter Fallon Smith.
Of course, those health issues aren’t far behind, which makes the presence of a solid No. 2 running back valuable to the continued success of the rushing attack. Otherwise, Del Rio seems pleased with Murray’s overall development in the offseason.
Mychal Rivera Not Conceding in Camp Battle
The writing on the wall was clear for tight end Mychal Rivera after the Raiders selected tight end Clive Walford out of Miami in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft. Oakland intended to upgrade the tight end position with a more versatile player capable of doing more than catching the football.
Rivera didn’t get the memo. He’s performing to the best of his abilities during the first handful of practices in Napa, while Walford remains sidelined for undisclosed reasons, per Damien.
Rivera continues to impress as a receiver, and that’s expected of him. There’s still no mention of his blocking technique and skill, which placed him in this camp battle in the first place.
Until reports circulate on Rivera’s blocking capabilities, expect Walford to step on the field and regain his spot as the starting tight end—whenever his undisclosed ailment clears up.
What's your take on the first week of news out of training camp? Share your comments below. Follow Maurice Moton on Twitter for Raiders training camp news.