Realistic Expectations for Every Oakland Raiders Rookie
For those who've followed the Oakland Raiders over the past two seasons, it's evident every single rookie has a chance at cracking the 53-man roster in September.
Head coach Jack Del Rio preaches competition during the offseasons, and the final rosters have reflected his word. In 2014, the Raiders signed wide receiver Seth Roberts as an undrafted free agent, and he became a top-three receiving target in the following year within a budding offense behind wideouts Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.
Last year, rookie seventh-round pick Vadal Alexander and sixth-round pick Cory James started five games apiece. Undrafted free agent Jalen Richard outgained fellow 2016 draftee DeAndre Washington in rushing and receiving yards. Second-round pick Jihad Ward entered the starting lineup before the team's first-round pick, Karl Joseph.
Clearly, draft status doesn't dictate snap counts for the upcoming season. Training-camp practices and preseason play will separate potential starters, role players and practice squad bodies for the 2017 campaign.
What should we expect from potential rookie contributors in the upcoming season?
On May 1, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport relayed the initial six-to-eight-week timeline for further news on cornerback Gareon Conley's sexual assault case. The Raiders should have more information within the week.
According to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, the NFL can't punish Conley for an incident that occurred before becoming an official player in the league. However, any further proceedings would place general manager Reggie McKenzie under a microscope, and the team would have to answer questions throughout the season about the legal process.
As far as Conley's projection on the field, he's likely going to take over the slot cornerback spot at some point in the season. As time progresses, the coaching staff may line him up against quicker receivers on the perimeter for matchup purposes.
According to NBCS Bay Area reporter Scott Bair, Conley has lined up within a sub-package among the starters and in the slot with the second team during organized team activities.
Despite other pressing defensive needs, McKenzie selected Conley at No. 24. T.J. Carrie shouldn't rest easy as a starter in nickel packages with a talented first-round pick pushing for early snaps.
Expectation: Slot cornerback
Stat line: 31 tackles, two interceptions, and eight passes defensed
In Bair's report above, he noted Melifonwu's role as a hybrid linebacker-safety, also known as the moneybacker role similar to Deone Bucannon with the Arizona Cardinals.
Along with Conley in the first-team sub-packages, second-round pick Obi Melifonwu has also taken snaps among starters in certain practice scenarios. He's also played strong safety with the second unit.
The athletic defensive back comes into the league with experience at free safety, but the Raiders need him in intermediate coverage situations. He'll shadow tight ends, help in the box against the run and likely go stride for stride with wide receivers on underneath routes.
Expect Melifonwu to finish with a full stat line across the board, but his ability to limit tight ends will show up in the film room, not the box score.
Expectation: Dime packages, backup strong safety
Stat line: 32 tackles, four passes defensed and one forced fumble
After missing organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes will join the team during training camp. He's probably worked hard to manage his weight and study the playbook, but there's no substitution for getting on the field.
Even though players can't practice with pads until late July, Vanderdoes must work on applying his knowledge to action on the field. The UCLA product will come into the training camp program without the basics.
Vanderdoes' late start doesn't mean he'll never catch up to speed. However, the depth across the defensive line and Treyvon Hester's early jump on snaps with the first team will make it difficult for the third-rounder to see significant snaps during his rookie campaign.
Keep in mind, the coaching staff expects Jihad Ward to improve. If Mario Edwards Jr. stays healthy, the role players must make the best of leftover snaps.
Expectation: Rotational interior defensive lineman
Stat line: 10 tackles, three tackles for loss
In Bair's organized team activity observation, he noted David Sharpe shared first-team reps with Vadal Alexander at right tackle in Marshall Newhouse's absence.
Del Rio highlighted Newhouse as the front-runner for the right tackle spot. Upon the 28-year-old's return, he'll likely split starter reps with Alexander. Sharpe would line up with the second team.
At the beginning, experienced talent will push Sharpe to the backseat. According to Bair, Austin Howard hasn't received clearance to participate in practice and may continue to miss on-field work in July, which leaves Alexander and Newhouse with a firm lead over the fourth-round pick for the starting spot.
For Sharpe, it'll take several eye-opening performances to leapfrog a versatile veteran in Newhouse and Alexander who started five games in the previous season. The Florida product will have a much better chance at more snaps in 2018.
Expectations: Backup right tackle
Stat line: Fewer than 100 snaps
Thus far, Bair has spotted Cory James and Tyrell Adams taking majority snaps at the inside linebacker positions. Marquel Lee and Jelani Jenkins have practiced with the second team. The order could well flip during training camp since the coaching staff often likes to see different combinations on the field.
Nonetheless, James holds one year of experience with five starts over Lee. The second-year linebacker didn't put together a flawless rookie season with limited snaps but played well enough to earn the early nod as an incumbent at the position.
McKenzie likes Lee's size, but when the players put the pads on, he'll have to deliver as a run defender and move well in space to secure consistent first-team reps. Del Rio has already hinted the team will sign a more experienced linebacker to join the group, per Bair. Until then, the Wake Forest product will have to push James for reps.
Expect James and Lee to start two preseason games apiece to determine the opening-day starter or primary backup behind a veteran.
Expectations: Backup inside linebacker
Stat line: 28 tackles and one fumble forced in three starts
During the second mandatory minicamp practice, safety Shalom Luani made his presence felt in pass defense, per Silver and Black Pride writer Levi Damien:
"Shalom Luani had a couple nice plays on the day. The pick six on Connor Cook and later knocking down a pass from Carr to what appeared to be a wide-open Amari Cooper up the left sideline. Luani came flying over from center field to swat the ball down. This is one seventh-rounder who is making a serious case for playing time."
The Raiders coaching staff won't allow Luani's pick-six and swooping pass breakup go along quietly. Expect to see the Washington State product in more coverage situations during the summer. With eight interceptions over the last two seasons with the Cougars, it's clear the 6'0", 205-pound safety possesses ball-hawking qualities, but he'll likely need to initially prove himself on special teams.
A good display on kick coverage paired with more eye-catching stops and forced turnovers could push Luani into Nate Allen's role as a backup cover safety. At the moment, the Raiders could use another playmaker at the position.
Expectations: Special teams / Backup safety
Stat line: 12 tackles, three passes defensed
The Raiders' second seventh-round pick will likely start his career as a project on the practice squad. McKenzie already stacked the tackle position with ample talent ranging from veterans to developing players.
Nonetheless, Jylan Ware brings more athleticism, similar to Menelik Watson, as opposed to a mountainous size. He's 6'8", 295 pounds compared to Sharpe, who's 6'6", 343 pounds with a stout frame.
With Sharpe already receiving first-team reps, it may take an injury or poor training-camp performance to open a pathway for Ware on the final 53-man depth chart. Though, there's a case for the seventh-round pick earning late-season snaps in case the perimeter protection struggles with athletic edge-rushers.
Nonetheless, keep an eye on the Alabama State product after a year's development on the practice squad. Of course, that's assuming another team doesn't find a spot for him on their roster.
Expectations: Practice Squad
Stat line: N/A
The Raiders shouldn't risk losing Elijah Hood by designating him as a practice-squad player, which allows another team to sign the seventh-rounder to their active roster.
The North Carolina running back ran for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns on 263 rush attempts during his sophomore year. A minor injury and fellow Tar Heel alum T.J. Logan ate into his carries as a junior.
According to Bair, Hood patents his game after Marshawn Lynch and would likely take over on early downs and short-yardage situations when Beast Mode retires for the second time. Both players also share the same birthday.
In nine seasons, Lynch has only played all 16 games four times. Assuming he puts together solid performances during training camp, Hood should be in line for 25-30 season carries in fill-in duty for Beast Mode. Don't expect much, but he a suitable low-volume alternative to Lynch.
Expectations: No. 4 running back
Stat line: 25 carries, 95 yards and one touchdown
As mentioned above, Treyvon Hester took first-team reps during mandatory minicamp. Despite his seventh-round status, he's a player to watch out for in the next phase of the offseason. He's obviously further along than Vanderdoes, and his skill set as an interior pass-rusher fills a void on the defensive line.
Hester could line up next to defensive tackle Justin Ellis in even-man defensive fronts. As a complement to the gap-stuffer, the Toledo prospect would typically aim to rush the passer or disrupt run plays in the backfield.
Denico Autry and Ward will list above Hester in snap volume. Due to the depth across the defensive line, the rookie's numbers won't jump off the page, but he gives the front line a much-needed boost in pocket pressure.
Expectations: Rotational interior defensive lineman
Stat line: 22 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks
All of a sudden, the Raiders have a hyper-competitive wide receiver corps coming into the upcoming season.
McKenzie signed Cordarrelle Patterson, who could challenge for snaps in the slot. Second-year pro Jaydon Mickens will push for Johnny Holton's No. 5 spot on the depth chart. According to Damien, the speedy receiver took snaps as a slot receiver with the second team during mandatory minicamp.
Add undrafted rookie wideout Ishmael Zamora to the list of potentials who could turn heads during training camp. The Baylor product flashed one solid year as a receiver, tallying 63 catches for 809 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016.
Still a bit raw with a Class C misdemeanor on his record stemming from an animal abuse incident, he's not likely to see the field in regular-season action right away. However, the 6'4", 215-pound wideout could make an impact as a big red-zone threat and alternative to K.J. Brent if he doesn't pan out.
Pending his ability to secure a practice-squad spot, the Raiders would be smart to encourage Zamora to get involved with animal-rights initiatives to help quell any raging questions about his character.
Expectations: Practice squad
Stat line: N/A