Oakland Raiders' Way-Too-Early 53-Man Roster and Depth Chart Predictions
The Raiders front office didn’t waste any time strengthening weak positions during free agency. General manager Reggie McKenzie and his draft-day decision-makers continued to fill needy positions through the first two rounds of the draft. The No. 14 and No. 44 overall picks, safety Karl Joseph and defensive lineman Jihad Ward, will have an immediate opportunity to earn snaps with the starting lineup.
After the top two draft selections, the best-player-available approach took over in Rounds 3 and 4. Michigan State Spartans prospect Shilique Calhoun dropped to No. 75 and his college teammate Connor Cook remained available at No. 100.
In Rounds 5-7, the Raiders added depth to shallow roster spots. Texas Tech Red Raiders running back DeAndre Washington will complement Latavius Murray in the backfield. Linebacker Cory James will likely contribute to special teams. Offensive lineman Vadal Alexander showed versatility at LSU, but his skill set translates to guard in the pros.
After the draft, McKenzie responded to questions from local reporters about draft picks and prospective roles for the upcoming season, per the team’s official website. Here are five quick takeaways from the conference:
- McKenzie acknowledged a single-man backfield doesn’t amount to enough as a total rushing offense. He feels Washington will become an immediate contributor offensively and excel in pass-protection assignments.
- The Raiders general manager referenced his tenure with the Green Bay Packers and their emphasis on depth at the quarterback position. He felt Cook was the best player available and too talented to neglect in the fourth round.
- McKenzie categorized Ward as a raw talent who’s not comparable to Mario Edwards Jr. due to his inexperience at the position. The Raiders general manager hopes to see the Illinois defensive lineman develop during the offseason.
- The Raiders will likely use James on special teams coverage. McKenzie showed his hand and basically said that James will earn his keep in that particular niche.
- A question about the decision not to draft an inside linebacker led McKenzie into a discussion about utilizing Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney as inside linebackers. This particular setup alludes to a 3-4 scheme. The Raiders general manager also spoke highly of Heeney, who could probably hold his ground as a “Mike” linebacker.
Surprisingly, McKenzie shared more behind-the-curtain details than expected.
Based on the information he provided, we’ll take the discussion a step further to project the 53-man roster for the regular season.
Keep in mind, Aldon Smith will miss time through November on a temporary ban, per NFL.com writer Connor Orr. As a result, he’s not included on the roster. Still, it’s not a guarantee that the NFL immediately lifts the ban during the reinstatement process.
According to SilverandBlackPride.com’s Levi Damien, fullback Marcel Reece will miss the first three weeks of the regular season because he violated the league’s performance enhancing drug-use policy. He missed Week 17 during the previous season and lost his Pro Bowl honors. Nonetheless, he’s not subject to a temporary ban, which includes a reinstatement process. He’s included on this full roster.
How do roles change due to new free-agent acquisitions? How many rookies will make the final roster?
Despite Cook coming to Oakland, Derek Carr has nothing to worry about as the unquestioned starter. McKenzie briefly addressed the issue after the draft.
It’s Carr’s time to shine in his third year. He took a giant step in his second season with new offensive weapons. He has figured out the quarterback rubik's cube and improved in reading defenses with patience. With another piece added to the offensive line and a complete backfield, Carr should throw for 30 or more touchdowns in 2016.
McKenzie didn’t say how Cook’s presence affects backup signal-caller Matt McGloin, who’s on a one-year deal, per Spotrac. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, via his Facebook account, says that the Raiders will instill competition behind Carr.
As for Cook, NFL scouts questioned his leadership qualities at Michigan State, per NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein. As a professional quarterback, it’s important to lead teammates in a chaotic situation. As he works on his physical tools, his intangibles will also draw scrutiny.
Right now, Cook ranks as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth, unless he takes the preseason-performance title from McGloin in stunning fashion.
|4||Jamize Olawale (Fullback)|
|5||Marcel Reece (H-Back)|
Murray will remain the lead back, but his split with Washington remains a mystery. The rookie running back must earn regular-season carries with an impressive offseason. He’s sharing the backfield with a 1,000-yard ball-carrier who ranked No. 6 in rushing yards last year.
In the first few weeks, Washington will likely catch passes out of the backfield and average five to 10 carries before taking on a significant load.
According to ESPN’s Adam Caplan, Roy Helu underwent two hip surgeries during the offseason. He’ll become a roster casualty due to inactivity.
Taiwan Jones will find a niche as a kick-return specialist due to Washington’s prospective role as the change-of-pace running back.
As previously mentioned, Reece will return to action in Week 3. However, his role will continue to decline as fullback Jamize Olawale offers more upside at 27 years old.
The three-time Pro Bowler’s role started to fade in the second half of the previous season. He’ll grab an occasional reception as an H-back in an offense blooming with young talent.
Amari Cooper enters his second season as the presumptive focal point within offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense.
Michael Crabtree’s production deserves recognition, but Cooper’s versatility forces defensive coordinators to spend extra time in the film room. The second-year wideout will likely eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in consecutive seasons.
As a possession receiver, Crabtree will serve as a solid 1A option, grinding out tough yards.
After viewing some mock drafts, Seth Roberts seems underappreciated. He carved out a spot in three-wide receiving sets during the previous offseason. Then, the former undrafted free agent delivered on the field as an exceptional downfield blocker and decent option in the slot. He’ll maintain his spot as the third wheel in the passing offense.
Andre Holmes will compete on a one-year deal. He doesn’t have viable competition for his No. 4 spot and likely contributes in spurts for another season.
Clive Walford should emerge as the No. 1 tight end on the depth chart. He missed time during the offseason as a rookie, which delayed his progress, but he’ll show the most growth within the offense in 2016. He recorded 15 of his 28 catches in the last five weeks of the 2015 season.
Lee Smith doesn’t threaten an opposing defense as receiver, which drops him behind a dynamic tight end like Walford. Nonetheless, he’s a grinder who’s needed to block disguised blitzers and aggressive pass-rushers on the edge.
The Raiders openly placed Mychal Rivera on the trade block, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, but his contract expires after the season. He’ll likely play out his rookie deal in Oakland before signing with a new team in 2017.
In the meantime, he’ll see action on passing downs as an alternative option to Walford. His below-average blocking skills will cost him a chance to shine in the upcoming season.
The Raiders’ massive offensive line dubbed “Carr Insurance” will keep the quarterback clean in the upcoming season.
Donald Penn re-signed on a two-year deal and looks fit to start for another year in Oakland. Despite struggling late in the previous season, he ranked No. 11 among all offensive tackles for 2015, per Pro Football Focus. If he exhibits a sharper decline, then the Raiders can potentially move newcomer Kelechi Osemele over to tackle.
Osemele started four games on the blind side in his final season with the Baltimore Ravens. Barring Penn’s demise, the former Ravens offensive lineman should solidify the right guard position for the Raiders.
Rodney Hudson must remain healthy throughout the season without backup center Tony Bergstrom on the roster. The Raiders don’t have a designated backup assigned to the position.
According to McKenzie, Alexander will take practice snaps at tackle and guard, but his slower movement and base power should keep him locked into the guard position.
If Osemele moves over to tackle, Alexander will likely jump over Jon Feliciano for the starting position.
The coaching staff should feed Feliciano more snaps as a backup center.
Expect a training camp battle between Menelik Watson and Austin Howard. Both offensive linemen will return to action at some point during the offseason.
According to ESPN.com reporter Paul Gutierrez, Watson will have a head start on locking up the right tackle spot in the offseason. Howard’s rehab will likely extend into the summer.
Watson looked impressive during the preseason. Though, he’s yet to show his progression for an extended period in the regular season. As the more polished right tackle, Howard will eventually re-claim his starting position.
Matt McCants will add depth in case injury strikes the offensive line.
|2||Mario Edwards Jr.|
After a 15-sack season and five-sack performance against the current Super Bowl champions, it's obvious Khalil Mack leads the charge for the Raiders defense. He’ll compete against Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt for the sack title in 2016.
Behind Mack, it gets sketchy.
Edwards still hasn’t received an update on his neck condition. Though optimistic, he’s still technically on the shelf. Mack’s sack rating would significantly increase with Edwards taking on two-gap assignments on the defensive line in a 3-4 scheme.
McKenzie described his questionable second-round pick as raw. It’s peculiar to draft an unrefined and inexperienced talent in the second round at a position with a key player dealing with an uncertain short-term future.
As a polished player at his position, Edwards started 10 games as a rookie. How long will it take Ward to click within the defensive line?
At 6’5”, 297 pounds, he’ll play 5-technique defensive end opposite Edwards or in his place. The rookie will also become a pass-rushing alternative to Justin Ellis in a four-man front.
Pending news on Edwards’ neck and Ward’s progression, Denico Autry could see an increased role early in the season. He filled in adequately as a rotational defensive lineman in the previous season.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. may depend on the former undrafted prospect to fill in the gaps as a 5-technique defensive end in the upcoming season.
As mentioned, Ward’s presence threatens Ellis’ snap count. He struggled as a 5-technique defensive end in the previous season and doesn’t provide pocket pressure in four-man fronts.
Of course, Ward must develop his power to play 3-technique defensive tackle before encroaching on Ellis’ snaps.
Dan Williams has solidified his spot in three- and four-man fronts. He’ll continue to occupy two gaps and engulf opposing ball-carriers in the middle.
Fan favorite Leon Orr will make a push for a rotational role in the upcoming season. He’s more athletic than Stacy McGee at his size. His veteran counterpart shows very little upside and may battle for a roster spot during the offseason.
Orr flashed minimal pass-rushing skills in college. If he’s able to reach the quarterback during preseason, then he’ll earn more regular-season snaps.
In a 4-3, Bruce Irvin will take Mack’s old position as a pass-rushing linebacker who also thwarts ground attacks on the edge.
During the offseason, McKenzie categorized the former Seattle Seahawks defender as a rush linebacker, via SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Tom Pelissero). In a 3-4 alignment, Irvin would simply become a primary edge-rusher.
During McKenzie’s post-draft press conference, he envisioned Smith as a weak-side linebacker or inside linebacker alongside Heeney. Norton will tailor schemes to the opponent, which means Smith’s experience holds value with a rookie and second-year player behind him on the depth chart.
McKenzie spoke optimistically about Neiron Ball’s recovery from a knee injury that shortened his rookie campaign. The second-year linebacker who has battled a long injury history will rotate into the lineup on passing downs for added coverage on tight ends.
The rookie, Calhoun, put together an impressive resume as a three-year starter at Michigan State. He recorded 27 sacks as a collegian and provides solid run support off the edge.
Calhoun played defensive end in college, but he’s not strong enough to line up with his hand in the dirt at 6’4”, 251 pounds. There’s a reason Mack bulked up to 265 pounds while transitioning to his new position on the defensive line.
As a linebacker, the Michigan State Spartans prospect will pressure the pocket and corral ball-carriers with solid tackling technique off the edge in sub-packages.
The Raiders illustrated supreme confidence in Heeney as their primary inside linebacker. Oakland didn’t draft a player at the position, which pencils the second-year player into the starting spot by default. He’ll pair with Smith in 3-4 sets.
Heeney also showed versatility to play on the outside in the previous season. He graded higher than Smith in pass coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
At 6’2”, 234 pounds, Korey Toomer profiles as an inside linebacker in size. However, he’ll continue to patrol the field exclusively in special teams coverage.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s very important to keep utility linebackers for special teams purposes. These players are usually under the radar until a kick returner scores a touchdown.
Sean Smith’s ability to press wideouts at the line of scrimmage comes at premium in a division with larger wide receivers. He’s the all-important piece in elevating the Raiders pass defense. At 6’2”, 215 pounds, he’s going to swat 50-50 passes and suffocate receivers at the top of their routes as a solid No. 1 cornerback.
David Amerson will defend No. 2 wide receivers and look to build on a momentous season in Oakland. After Washington released him, he has rediscovered the skills that made him special as a collegian.
The Raiders put too much on T.J. Carrie’s plate during the previous season, which led to his regression as a cornerback late in the season. Nonetheless, the Raiders added reinforcements to the secondary. In the upcoming season, the third-year defensive back can focus on his position in the slot where he flourished during his rookie year.
Raiders fans are fed up with D.J. Hayden, but he’s not going anywhere. Oakland wouldn’t save a dime by releasing the former first-round pick, per overthecap.com.
He also showed incremental progress in nickel packages. McKenzie said he’d make a decision on Hayden’s fifth-year option in the near future. Nonetheless, the maligned cornerback will play his fourth season in Oakland.
Neiko Thorpe showed flashes and struggled in the previous season. Nonetheless, McKenzie didn’t see a need to draft a cornerback. The fourth-year defensive back will likely see action in dime packages.
Keep an eye on second-year cornerback Dexter McDonald. At 6’1”, 200 pounds, he’s similar to Amerson in size.
If Amerson leaves town for a better deal after the season, McDonald could rise through the ranks.
Nonetheless, the Raiders know McDonald must continue to sharpen his skills and experience more real-time action in order to take on a bigger role.
Reggie Nelson essentially takes over Charles Woodson’s role as the savvy veteran who reads the quarterback at centerfield.
Oakland hopes to see an encore to Nelson’s league-leading eight interceptions in 2015. Regardless, he’ll quickly become the leader within the secondary as Joseph develops his presence on the field.
During West Virginia Mountaineers' pro day, Joseph pinpointed training camp as a reasonable time frame for his return to action. Once he’s cleared to step on the field, the West Virginia safety will add toughness and quality run support in the box.
Nate Allen battled injuries in the previous season. He’s going to take a backseat to Joseph in the upcoming season. Allen could contribute to nickel packages due to his coverage ability downfield. However, the coaching staff understands who holds the future at the position.
Brynden Trawick played a significant role on special teams for the Ravens. As an active player on the Raiders roster, he’ll contribute more of the same on kickoff and punt returns.
|Kick Returner||Andre Debose|
|Punt Returner||T.J. Carrie|
Punter Marquette King signed a five-year, $16.5 million deal in the offseason, which secures his job position for the next few years. He earned his new contract during the previous season with 40 punts inside the 20-yard-line, which ranked No. 2 among all punters.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski experienced a few hiccups in 2015. As the Raiders move further into the spotlight in tight contests, field-goal accuracy becomes more important in closing out victories. His field-goal percentage ranked No. 30 among all kickers at 80 percent.
The Raiders have kept kicker Giorgio Tavecchio around over the past year as insurance for Janikowski. The 17-year veteran knows his job could be on the line with every field-goal attempt for the final two years on his deal. He’ll start the season on the roster, but he must improve his field-goal percentage to maintain a spot.
Carrie will likely resume his duties as a punt returner. He’s no longer the No. 1 cornerback on the depth chart, which allows the Raiders to send him out on special teams without fear of losing their best perimeter defender.
Andre Debose suffered an Achilles injury during the previous offseason, but he’ll return to satisfy a need that hampered the Raiders in 2015. The kick- and punt-return specialist adds stability to an overlooked position. Nonetheless, the constant tryouts at kick returner will end in 2016.
53-Man Roster Projection
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Player contracts provided by Spotrac.com.
All college statistics are provided by Sports-Reference.com.
Reggie McKenzie quotes provided by his post-draft press conference, unless otherwise noted.