Oakland Raiders: 5 Most Impressive Training Camp Performances so Far
As the Oakland Raiders move closer to their first preseason game, training camp practices become increasingly important. The preseason games give players the opportunity to earn roster spots. For that to happen, they need to get on the field. And that playing time is earned in camp.
With 90 players currently on the roster, it's tough to stand out. And with so many practices and so many reps, almost every player will make a nice play now and then.
But anyone at this level can look good for a play or two. What the team is looking for are players who consistently make an impact.
When looking for players who have impressed so far, several expected names pop up. Defensively, Khalil Mack has looked very good as a pass-rusher. On offense, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have continued to increase the distance between themselves and the other wide receivers on the roster.
But these players are supposed to look good. Instead, we'll take a look at some of Oakland's less-heralded players who have shown the potential to be contributors in 2015.
The players mentioned here aren't unknowns. However, as camp has gone on, they've begun to assume larger roles than what was initially expected. While they were already going to be important players, they've begun to emerge as leaders and especially important factors in the team's success.
Of all the positions on the Oakland roster, no single one inspires more questions, doubts and concerns than cornerback.
Most of these issues revolve around DJ Hayden and Keith McGill. Hayden was expected to be the the team's No. 1 cornerback, but he's lost first-team reps to McGill. These two seem to be jockeying for position on the cornerback depth chart.
But as Hayden and McGill battle it out for one of the starting jobs, it's been TJ Carrie who's provided the position with some stability.
Following Oakland's sixth day of camp, CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair declared the secondary the winners of the day. Perhaps most interestingly, he referred to Carrie's performance that day as "predictably strong." Carrie's solid performances throughout camp have been so common, they're starting to be expected.
Carrie has continued to build off of a surprisingly impressive rookie season, and he's consistently played with the first-team defense throughout camp. Quietly, he's turning into the Raiders' most reliable option at cornerback and a leader for the unit.
While Oakland tries to figure out what it has in Hayden and McGill, it's Carrie who's stood out the most and given the team hope that the cornerbacks will be able to hold their own this year.
Aside from the selection of Amari Cooper, no Oakland draft pick from this year has been as consistently praised as third-round selection Clive Walford. A solid blocker on running and passing plays with the ability to create big plays through the air, he was expected to come in and immediately contest for the starting job at tight end.
Unfortunately, he's yet to participate in camp, which has left Mychal Rivera with no major competition for the starting spot. But this shouldn't be taken to mean that Rivera hasn't earned the job.
More importantly, what this camp has allowed Rivera to do is find a role better suited to his abilities. He's never been an elite blocker, but that's not the role in which he best helps the offense. As SilverandBlackPride.com's Levi Damien points out:
"There will be different things Rivera will be asked to do in Musgrave's offense. Rivera was expected to fill mostly the H-back role, with an emphasis on his receiving abilities, which plays to Rivera's strengths."
Rather than playing closer to the line, Rivera has been able to spend more time this camp doing what he does best: catching passes. And he's looked good in the process, something that hasn't escaped the eye of head coach Jack Del Rio (via Damien): "He's an athletic guy. I think he showed some of that athleticism here early in this camp with a couple of nice catches. "
Exactly what position Rivera will play remains to be seen, but he is still listed as a tight on the Raiders' official roster. More importantly, what he has been able to do so far is establish a more defined role in the offense. He's a receiving tight end, and he's proving that he's very good in this role.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave acknowledged this when he said of Rivera (via CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair), "He’s done a super job. He’s terrific in the passing game."
Rivera had been somewhat written off after the arrival of Walford. But as camp continues, Rivera is showing that he can be one of the offense's most dangerous weapons.
Remember Jonathan Dowling?
Oakland's 2014 draft class was an excellent one that included Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, Justin Ellis and TJ Carrie, all players who are currently starters. But along with these foundational players, the Raiders also took Dowling with their final pick of the draft.
As a seventh-rounder, it's understandable that Dowling hasn't received as much attention. It doesn't help that he was little used during his rookie season.
But this doesn't take away from how talented he truly is. SFBay.ca's Jason Leskiw points out that when the Raiders took Dowling in the seventh round, NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt was a huge fan of the pick and considered Dowling a major steal that late in the draft.
This year, Dowling is starting to show that potential. CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair points out that "Second-year safety Jonathan Dowling has been around the ball quite a bit, and made some nice plays on Sunday."
For now, the Raiders are set at the starting safety positions with the ageless Charles Woodson and new addition Nate Allen. But the depth chart behind them is unsettled, which means that it's an open competition. The coaches will go with whoever is playing the best. This bodes well for Dowling, who's been consistently effective throughout camp.
Brandian Ross and Larry Asante have also played well, and their experience gives them an advantage. However, neither has the upside that the 6'3", 190-pound Dowling has. As he continues to have a strong camp, he'll continue to earn more playing time. And this will continue to increase his chances at making the final roster.
Taiwan Jones has been an interesting and somewhat frustrating player since he joined the Raiders in 2011 when the team selected him in the fourth round of the draft.
A running back with big play potential, Jones never quite found a role at the position. Since then, he's moved to cornerback and back to running back as the team continues to look for a way to make use of his tremendous potential.
According to the Raiders' official site, Jones has looked good since returning to the running back position this year: "Running back Taiwan Jones shows his quickness time after time when he gets chance to kick any run outside. He also looked good returning kicks today and continues to build upon a strong camp."
There are two important things to take away from this. First, Jones is as fast and quick as ever. This is a great sign given that he missed all of last season due to injury, and it provides another dimension to Oakland's running game.
Second, Jones' reps as a kick returner are a great sign for him and for the team. The Raiders are searching for a reliable presence in this role. Having Jones' speed and special teams experience at kick returner would be a huge boost to the return game.
One of the issues that Jones is facing is that while he's certainly an incredible talent, he doesn't have a clearly defined role. This makes it difficult for the coaches to find a roster spot for him.
So far in camp, Jones has made great progress in addressing this issue. While he can serve as a reserve running back, his true role can be that of an all-around special teams ace. Claiming the return man role in addition to his stellar coverage on kicks and punts would be great for him and for the team, and he's in the process of making that happen.
Still only 27 years old, Jones can be a major asset for Oakland. The issue is finding him a defined role. Return man would be ideal, and Jones has shown that he's ready for the responsibility.
Michael Dyer faced a steep uphill climb when he joined the Raiders as an undrafted rookie. Oakland is crowded at running back with Latavius Murray and Roy Helu sure to make the final roster and players like Trent Richardson, George Atkinson III and Taiwan Jones battling for roster spots behind them.
Playing time opened up in camp with Richardson and Helu both missing practices, and Dyer has taken the opportunity to make a strong case to not only make the team, but possibly battle for the No. 2 or No. 3 running spot behind Murray.
CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair had this to say about Dyer's performance early in camp:
"Dyer, built like a bowling ball at 5-foot-9, 218 pounds, has shown power and explosiveness throughout camp. On Sunday, the team’s first practice in pads, Dyer broke free on a few runs that impressed head coach Jack Del Rio."
Even head coach Jack Del Rio admitted being impressed by the rookie (via Bair):
"Michael’s done a nice job of developing. From what we saw in the spring until now, he seems more comfortable, accountable and dependable on offense and special teams. Every now and then he’ll pop through a hole and turn on the speed. He’s off to a nice start."
There's a long way to go before Oakland has to cut down to 53 players, and a lot can happen between now and then. But early on, Dyer has made a strong case to make the team and earn playing time once the season kicks off.
Most of the talk at tight end this offseason for the Raiders has revolved around Mychal Rivera and rookie Clive Walford. But the most surprising performer at tight end so far has been undrafted rookie Gabe Holmes.
Holmes has ideal size for the position at 6'5" and 254 pounds. He has excellent speed for his size, and he's displayed it in camp. And despite going undrafted, he's worked his way into reps with the second unit, according to SilverandBlackPride.com's Levi Damien:
"This former basketball star is making a strong impression on the team and as a result has seen a lot of reps with the second team offense. If the team keeps more than three tight ends, he is making a case to be that fourth guy."
Holmes is a long shot to make the final roster. He has Rivera, Walford and Lee Smith ahead of him on the tight end depth chart, all of whom are virtual locks to make the team. That leaves Holmes to battle it out with Brian Leonhardt, himself an undrafted tight end back in 2013, for the No. 4 tight end spot.
But it's unlikely that Oakland carries more than three tight ends, which makes Holmes the odd man out even if he beats out Leonhardt.
However, Holmes could prove to be useful on special teams. At worse, if he doesn't make the team, he's sure to be added to the practice squad. And if any tight end ahead of him falters, it wouldn't be surprising to see Holmes on the field once the regular season starts.
One of the most intriguing positions in Oakland's camp has been wide receiver. While rookie Amari Cooper and seven-year veteran Michael Crabtree are set firmly as the top two receivers, the entire depth chart behind them is wide open. With projected No. 3 wide receiver Rod Streater yet to participate in camp, every spot after the first two is up for grabs.
So far, it's been Kenbrell Thompkins who's taken the most advantage of the opportunity to move up the depth chart. CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair points out that "Kenbrell Thompkins has been the best behind the top two [Cooper and Crabtree], and has seen significant action with Streater out."
In fact, Bair reports the third-year receiver has been so impressive that "Kenbrell Thompkins is the Raiders’ No. 3 receiver at this stage, and was playing in the slot in first-team, three-receiver sets."
At the beginning of camp, Thompkins was a bottom-of-the-depth-chart receiver with his best shot of making the team being as a No. 5 or No. 6 receiver behind guys like Cooper, Crabtree, Streater and Andre Holmes.
However, Streater continues to fall further behind with each missed practice. As for Holmes, he's had some of the same problems with inconsistency that he had last season, which the San Francisco Chronicle's Vic Tafur pointed out in a tweet: "Holmes goes up for a nice catch over [cornerback Neiko] Thorpe ... He then dropped very next one."
With Streater out and Holmes' reliability still in question, Thompkins has stepped up and begun to make a case for himself as a the permanent third option at wide receiver. He's gone from a player on the roster bubble to one that's beginning to establish a major role in the offense.
The competition for the No. 3 wide receiver spot will really heat up once Streater returns. But if he takes too long and Thompkins continues to impress the coaches, the competition might already be over.
Who do you think has impressed the most in camp so far? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.