Oakland Raiders: Players with Most to Prove in First Preseason Game

Brian Flores@@Raiders_TrackerContributor IIIAugust 13, 2015

Oakland Raiders: Players with Most to Prove in First Preseason Game

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Good news, Oakland Raiders fans! We finally have NFL football!

    Well, sort of.

    The preseason (or NFL Lite) is a strange time for fans. Yes, it's technically NFL football, but it's not the real product. Starters see some time, but they only play about four quarters total over the first three games of the preseason, and most see almost no playing time in the fourth game, if they see any at all.

    But these games are still important. The starters spend their limited time on the field working out the kinks and developing a rhythm with one another in preparation for Week 1 of the regular season.

    More importantly, this is the time when players can really move up the the depth chart. Players deep on the depth chart can work their way into more prominent roles that include increased playing time, and roster-bubble players can get their foot in the door of the final 53-man roster.

    Yes, there are players who are in camp to fill a spot. No offense to Giorgio Tavecchio, but he's not taking Sebastian Janikowski's spot unless the 16-year vet suffers an injury.

    However, there are several players with everything to play for. These players are auditioning for their jobs, which makes the preseason games some of the most important of their lives. This process begins with the Raiders' first preseason game when they host the St. Louis Rams.

What We're Looking for

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    For an Oakland team that's still in the process of rebuilding, everyone in silver and black has something to prove. There's no one on the roster who should feel too comfortable as the team gets ready to kick off the 2015 preseason.

    However, we're skipping obvious starters for this discussion. Guys like Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper have plenty to prove, but their jobs aren't at risk. Sure, if the performance of any one of them is absolutely terrible in the preseason, they won't be starters. But aside from that very unlikely scenario, they're locks to make the final roster and be starters.

    Instead, who we're looking at are guys who are fighting for a starting job, an increased role or a roster spot. These are players who have played well in camp but have yet to show that they can perform at the same level against live competition. Also included are players who have underwhelmed in camp and are looking to make up lost ground.

    When it comes to guys on the roster bubble, there's always a question as to how the roster will finally break down. How many spots are actually available in a position group affects a player's chances of making the team.

    There's no way to know this ahead of time. Will the coaches decide to drop an offensive lineman to add a tight end? Will they decide to carry one extra linebacker and one less defensive lineman?

    What we can do is make an educated guess. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll use the following template to determine how many players the Raiders are likely to keep at each position.

    PositionNumber of Players
    Quarterback3
    Running Back4
    H-back1
    Wide Receiver6
    Tight End3
    Offensive Linemen9
    Defensive Linemen9
    Linebackers6
    Cornerback6
    Safety3
    Special Teams (kicker, punter, long snapper)3
    Total53

    These numbers can change. However, they're a good starting point for looking at how many spots there are likely to be available at any given position. We'll use this when looking at players on the bubble fighting to make the final roster.

Honorable Mentions

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    There are several players with a lot to play for in the preseason opener. Unfortunately, injuries have kept them out of practices for an extended period, which means that they're almost certainly not going to play against the Rams. These players will most likely have to wait until at least the preseason's second game to show what they have to offer.

    Rod Streater

    Rod Streater has plenty to prove in the first preseason game as he's fighting to earn the No. 3 wide receiver spot. The problem? He's yet to participate in a single practice. CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair points out, "There isn’t a specific timetable for Raiders receiver Rod Streater to come off the active/non-football illness list." Citing a league source, Bair also notes that Streater "is aiming to return within the next week." Once Streater does return, he'll be in the thick of a position battle. But until that happens, he's a non-factor. That'll be the case against St. Louis.

    Clive Walford

    Like Streater, Clive Walford had plenty to play for heading into camp. But like Streater, he hasn't been on the field, which means he hasn't had the opportunity to fight for the starting tight end spot as many expected he would. Fortunately, Walford has returned to practice. However, he's still working his way into the regular rotation, so it's possible he doesn't play at all against the Rams. Assuming he can stay on the field, the second preseason game will be Walford's real opportunity to show what he can do.

    Roy Helu Jr.

    With all the talk at running back about Latavius Murray, Trent Richardson and Michael Dyer, Roy Helu has more or less skated by unnoticed. Even in his absence, it's mostly been assumed that he's a lock to make the roster and be a regular part of the offense. Those things may be true, but he still has to show what he can do. He's certainly valuable if he's healthy. But in the meantime, he continues to lose ground in a crowded position group.

Mario Edwards Jr.

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Mario Edwards Jr. has plenty to prove, especially as rookie. However, exactly what he has to prove is a bit unclear.

    He's listed as a defensive end reserve, but do the coaches want him to be a pass-rusher, or is he going to be used more as a run-stopping defensive end? Is he going to be asked to play inside at defensive tackle as well? If so, how often, and in what situations?

    Once it becomes clear what exactly the team expects from him, Edwards will have a clear purpose. Until then, he just has to focus on making any plays he can while avoiding major mistakes no matter what he's asked to do.

    As for Edwards, he appears up to the challenge. The San Francisco Chronicle's Vic Tafur noted that Edwards "appears to be responding to being pushed and prodded" (via NBCBayArea.com's Doug Williams).

    This is a great sign given that one of the knocks against Edwards coming out of college was that he wasn't always as committed or dedicated as he needed to be. This is something that head coach Jack Del Rio acknowledged (via Williams): "We see a supremely talented guy that obviously had a case of senioritis."

    Edwards was a high draft pick, and his addition was expected by many to solve the pass-rushing problem in Oakland. However, he's currently listed as a backup behind veteran Justin Tuck.

    While this might be seen as a disappointing start to his career, it actually gives Edwards an opportunity to continue to learn the NFL game before assuming a more prominent role in the defense. Williams points out, "If Edwards can learn and show some positive things against the competition in the four preseason games, his presence on the defensive line could be a big boost for a rebuilding Raiders franchise."

    As a non-starter, Edwards is going to be given time to grow, but he still has to show against St. Louis that he can contribute immediately both against the run and in the pass rush.

Trindon Holliday

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    While Trindon Holliday is listed as a wide receiver, his size (5'5", 166 pounds) makes him a non-factor in this area. His true role is as a return man. Someone with such a specialized role is always going to have a hard time making the roster, and he's in an even tougher spot given his recent injury history.

    It's going to take something really special from Holliday to make the team. Fortunately, he's shown in the past that "really special" is something that he's capable of. Holliday's best years were 2012 and 2013 when he was one of the premier return men in the league on both kickoffs and punts.

    SeasonKick ReturnsAvg YDTDPunt ReturnsAvg YDTD
    20122126.314710.21
    20132827.71328.51

    But after two very successful seasons, Holliday played only two games in 2014 (one for the San Francisco 49ers, one for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) during which time he had only seven punt and kick returns combined. However, he was still as effective. He averaged 8.5 yards per punt return and 25.6 yards on five kick returns.

    Injuries have been an issue for Holliday, which makes sense given his size. He has to prove that he's still able to return kicks. Just as importantly, he has to prove that he can stay healthy.

    He'll be helped by the fact that the Raiders have no go-to return man currently on the roster. There are players who could potentially fill the role, but they're either too important elsewhere to risk injury on returns (TJ Carrie and Latavius Murray) or have yet to prove that they can effectively do the job consistently (Taiwan Jones and George Atkinson III).

    The only action Holliday will see is returning kicks and punts. If he proves he's still effective in these roles in the preseason opener, he'll stick around. If not, his already tenuous hold on a roster spot will become even less secure, and he'll be a leading candidate to be a part of the first round of cuts.

Sio Moore, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Malcolm Smith

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Injuries have forced Sio Moore to be only an occasional participant in training camp. He's the presumed starter at weak-side linebacker (Will), but head coach Jack Del Rio subtly made it known that the job still has to be earned, per the Associated Press's Josh Dubow:

    We need to find out what he can bring. I haven't really seen him full tilt. He is active now. He has joined the team again now in a full-go capacity. I'll get to learn more about him. We need all of our players to grow and improve and become great teammates and he's no different.

    With less than a week to go before the first game of the preseason, the Raiders released their first official depth chart of the season. In a not-so-surprising twist, Khalil Mack was listed as a defensive end. ESPN.com's Bill Williamson reported that Del Rio plans to use Mack at both defensive end and linebacker, but this still potentially opens up a starting spot at strong-side linebacker (Sam).

    These two developments mean that there could be as many as two starting linebacker jobs up for grabs as the preseason gets going. At the very least, the starting weak-side linebacker has yet to be determined.

    It's going to be a three-man competition between Moore, Malcolm Smith and Ray-Ray Armstrong, who have have shown flashes in camp. These three linebackers are fighting for at least one starting spot, so they have everything to play for. They'll all get extended looks, especially with Mack seeing time at defensive end.

    Each has an advantage, but they each also have an obstacle to overcome. Assuming that Mack starts at defensive end, here's the situation each one finds himself in:

    • Moore is the leading candidate to start at the Will spot, but he first has to prove that he can stay healthy.
    • Armstrong has been explosive in camp and has to show that he can play as well against real competition. He's the leading candidate to replace Mack at the Sam spot. If Mack starts at defensive end, Armstrong should be his primary backup.
    • If Smith starts, it's be in the Will position, but he has to beat out Moore for the job.

    At worst, these players will primary backups. But as of now, they're all fighting for a starting job, and the first preseason game will be their first chance to make their case.

Kenbrell Thompkins

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    With 11 wide receivers currently on the Raider' roster, it's one of the most crowded positions on the team. The competition is tight at every spot, starting with the third option. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are the clear starters. After them, it's an open competition.

    With Rod Streater, the leading candidate to be the No. 3 wide receiver, yet to practice, it's been Kenbrell Thompkins who's stepped into the role.  The question now is: Is Thompkins the real deal? He's played well in camp, but we've seen camp warriors before that can't replicate those training-field performances on game days (remember Juron Criner?).

    So far, it's been mostly positive reviews. CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair noted that Thompkins "has been the best behind the top two [Cooper and Crabtree], and has seen significant action with Streater out.

    Thompkins has a huge opportunity in the preseason opener. Even with Streater yet to practice, there's still a sense that Thompkins is just keeping the seat warm. But a standout performance from Thompkins combined with the continued absence of Streater could make the current situation a permanent one. Thompkins has a real shot at permanently securing the No. 3 spot.

    With the intense competition at wide receiver, Thompkins also has to avoid a poor performance. He's looked good in practices, but he has by no means secured a spot. A bad performance could send him tumbling down the depth chart and back onto the roster bubble.

Neiron Ball

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    As training camp got under way, the Raiders looked set at linebacker at both the starting and reserve spots.

    Projected Linebacker Depth Chart
    PositionStrong side (Sam)Middle (Mike)Weak side (Will)
    StarterKhalil MackCurtis Lofton Sio Moore
    BackupRay-Ray ArmstrongBen Heeney Malcolm Smith

    However, Oakland's first released depth chart listed Mack as a starting defensive end, not a linebacker. This changes the outlook at the position because it creates an opening for a linebacker deeper on the depth chart to work his way onto the final roster.

    So far, of the linebackers deeper on the depth chart, it's been Neiron Ball who's made the biggest impression.

    For anyone who hasn't heard about Neiron Ball's tough life, you can check out his interview with CSNBayArea.com's Fallon Smith here. If you're not rooting for him after hearing his story, you just don't have a heart.

    As we all know, that alone won't earn Ball a roster spot. Fortunately, he has the game to earn a spot. He's the type of player who makes up solid depth at a position.

    He has the ability to make plays, which he showed in a recent practice when he got into the backfield, stripped quarterback Christian Ponder of the ball, picked it up and ran it the other way, as reported by SilverandBlackPride.com's Levi Damien.

    Ball is also a high-energy player who continuously works and gets himself in positions to make plays both against the run and in the passing game.

    Now that a linebacker spot has possibly opened up, it's an opening for anyone who can step up. Ball is a leading candidate for the spot, and he'll get his first chance to claim it against the Rams.

Menelik Watson

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    This is a huge year for Menelik Watson. Oakland selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that he would lock down the right tackle position. But what's actually happened is that Watson has struggled to stay healthy, and he's struggled to be effective when he has been on the field.

    This is a make-or-break year for Watson, and so far, he's off the a good start. He's been getting the first-team reps at right tackle ahead of the more experienced and proven Austin Howard. What Watson has to show now is that he can hold his own against live NFL defenses that are really trying to get into the backfield and to his quarterback.

    Holding the edge along the offensive line is crucial to a successful offense, which means that the entire unit is depending on Watson to do his job well. That's something he's yet to do as a professional.

    Watson doesn't have to be special against St. Louis (although that would be nice). But at the very least, what he has to show is that he can be an effective part of the offensive line. Doing so will go a long way in the offense as a whole developing a rhythm, and it'll also help him further secure the starting job that the team is eager to give him.

    But if Watson doesn't play well, he'll not only see his starting job jeopardized. He'll also look even more like the draft bust that many already suspect him of being.

Brice Butler

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    If you've read any of my previous articles in which I discuss Oakland's situation at wide receiver, you know that I'm a proud, card-carrying member of the Brice Butler bandwagon. If you're unfamiliar, here's a summary of my stance on Butler:

    • His talent was wasted under the previous head coaches
    • He possesses game-breaking talent (as evidenced on this play) that can make the offense truly dangerous
    • At worst, he should be the No. 4 wide receiver, but he should be in contention for the No. 3 spot

    As has been the case in the past, Butler find himself in contention for a roster spot, but the wide receiving depth chart is crowded. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are the undisputed top two options. And as CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair reports, Kenbrell Thompkins has been filling in well as the third option in the absence of Rod Streater.

    However, that still leaves Butler the possibility of earning the No. 4 wide receiver position. Even in this role, he can be a major asset to the offense. This also puts him in a good position to get extended playing time in the preseason opener. With the starters likely to only see a few series, the third, fourth and fifth wide receivers should see plenty of action.

    Also, with Streater still out and Thompkins still unproven, the No. 3 spot is by no means secured. It's still up for grabs, giving Butler an even loftier goal to aim for.

    Against St. Louis, Butler has to remind the coaches of what they should already know: He can consistently get open thanks to his route running, and he has good hands. He's also a threat to make a big play every time he touches the ball whether that's on a catch-and-run on a short route or on deeper pass.

    Butler is on the fringe of the wide receiver depth chart. But an impressive performance can help him secure the No. 4 spot or even get him into the mix to be the No. 3 wide receiver.

DJ Hayden and Keith McGill

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    One of the most hotly debated topics surround the Raiders has been the unsettled nature of the cornerback position, particularly at the top of the depth chart. However, this discussion specifically surrounds two payers. While TJ Carrie has secured one starting spot, the other one is going to come down to DJ Hayden and Keith McGill.

    Throughout training camp, Hayden and McGill have gone back and forth between working opposite of Carrie and working in the slot. Both players have seen a fair amount of time at both positions, so it remains unclear whether the coaching staff has any preference.

    Ultimately, someone has to start alongside Carrie, and someone has to play in the slot. Both Hayden and McGill want to start, and as with all things in football, the best place to settle this is on the field.

    Oakland's depth chart currently lists Carrie and Hayden as the starters, and it's likely that this is how the defense will start the game against the Rams. But Hayden and McGill will both get their opportunities to show the coaches what they can do.

    Of all the position battles currently going on in Oakland, this one is the most intense, and this first performance could make a big difference in the overall competition, which means that Hayden and McGill have more to prove than anyone else on the Oakland roster in the first preseason game.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL.com. Player measurements taken from the Raiders' official roster. The current depth chart is taken from the Raiders' official site.

    Who do you think has the most to prove in Oakland's preseason opener? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

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