What to Watch for in Oakland Raiders' Preseason Week 1 Matchup
After banging heads against each other, the Oakland Raiders will turn their attention to the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday. It's a Silver and Black preseason debut against a squad that already dipped its feet in exhibition play for the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Training camp shows a player's commitment to the practice field. Now it's time to test an individual's will against actual opponents in a competitive contest. The games won't count in the win-loss column, but like the Raiders, the Cardinals have quality talent battling for a roster position in September.
For the Raiders, there's an abundance of talent at running back and wide receiver. A player or two at either position may miss the final cut.
How Does the Offensive Line Fare with Backup and Inexperienced Tackles?
Menelik Watson signed with the Denver Broncos. The team released Austin Howard. Donald Penn continues to hold out. Whether fourth-rounder David Sharpe and seventh-rounder Jylan Ware shake off their injuries to play on Saturday or not, the offensive line will look different on the perimeter.
Due to Penn's holdout, Marshall Newhouse shifted to left tackle during practice—a position he hasn't played consistently since the 2012 season with the Green Bay Packers.
On the right side, Vadal Alexander has taken first-team reps with Newhouse on the left. Penn has a deal in place and isn't likely to forfeit an entire year at 34 years old.
The Raiders plan to move Newhouse back to the right when or if Penn returns, per San Francisco Chronicle writer Vic Tafur. In the meantime, we'll see how the line fares with a new face and a second-year player who's started five games on the perimeter.
It's a guarantee that if Newhouse allows one sack, Raiders fans will call for general manager Reggie McKenzie to acquiesce to Penn's contract demands. The 34-year-old tackle gave up one sack in 600-plus pass-blocking snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Focus.
An Initial Look at Rookie Marquel Lee with the Starters
After the draft, McKenzie talked about allowing his young inside linebackers to claim the starting job as opposed to bringing in proven veterans right away.
Since the second training camp session, fifth-round pick Marquel Lee practiced with the starters. He replaced Tyrell Adams, who lined up on the weak side during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, per Tafur. Cory James continued to log first-team reps, but he shifted over to the weak side to complement the rookie.
On Sunday, head coach Jack Del Rio shared a positive assessment with the media on the fifth-rounder but subtly touched on his need to improve his pass coverage before touting him as a complete standout.
"He shows up in the run periods maybe a little more now than the pass periods, but he's making progress," Del Rio said.
Opponents have found a blind spot in coverage over the middle, utilizing running backs and tight ends to exploit the Raiders defense.
Lee must show some range in defending the pass along with the run. As a rookie, he's likely to make mistakes, but it's good to see him take his lumps early and continue to improve throughout the preseason.
Can Elijah Hood Channel His Inner Beast Mode?
Don't expect running back Marshawn Lynch to see much action in exhibition play. Entering their sophomore seasons, running backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will see a fair amount of work, but they're similar in play style. The Raiders may find a physical alternative to Beast Mode in a rookie.
Seventh-round pick Elijah Hood shares a birthday and run style with Lynch and hopes to flash some physicality as a changeup to Washington and Richard. For the North Carolina product, special teams will factor into his chance at making the 53-man roster, but an impressive showing on the ground would certainly improve his stock.
The Raiders hope Lynch can carry the load for a strenuous 16-game season, but it's foolish to assume he'll go through the year without missing time or dealing with wear and tear at 31 years old. Hood could make the practice squad or final roster as Beast Mode's understudy.
Eddie Vanderdoes and Treyvon Hester Battle for Defensive Interior Spotlight
Through organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, seventh-rounder Treyvon Hester took the spotlight. Eddie Vanderdoes missed both phases of the Raiders' offseason program but turned heads in Napa, California, per NBCS Bay Area reporter Scott Bair:
"Derek Carr never stood a chance. Eddie Vanderdoes quickly broke through the offensive front, charged into the backfield and reached the Raiders star quarterback before completing his drop.
"Khalil Mack was pumped. He let out a roar, rushed toward Vanderdoes and rewarded the rookie with a head butt. Bruce Irvin came around and smacked in the back of Vanderdoes' helmet."
There's a palpable hype behind Vanderdoes' early showing at training camp. He could develop into an interior playmaker between Mack and Irvin, which explains their excitement for his simulated sack on the practice field.
On Saturday, we'll have an opportunity to see the third-rounder attempt to push through the Cardinals offensive line for real quarterback takedowns. Don't forget Hester's early push through the interior in May and June.
The two rookies may translate that camp buzz into production, which puts Justin Ellis and Jihad Ward on notice in the defensive line rotation.
Will T.J. Carrie Extend His Time with Starters?
Once cornerback Sean Smith dropped to the second-team defense, he became the target of negative publicity, but it's premature to bury him on the depth chart in August. However, cornerback T.J. Carrie can claim an opening in the starting lineup for Week 1.
The coaching staff will likely take an extended look at the fourth-year pro in a contract year. Carrie isn't a stranger to lining up on the perimeter—he played there consistently in 2015. During practices, the coaching staff has experimented with Smith covering tight ends, per San Jose Mercury News reporter Jerry McDonald.
"Cornerback Sean Smith was still with the second team defense but did break up one pass intended for tight end Jared Cook as the Raiders continue to experiment with the veteran guarding tight ends," McDonald wrote.
On Sunday, the 30-year-old cornerback saw time as a linebacker in a dime sub-package, per Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Michael Gehlken.
One man's rough training camp becomes another man's summer opportunity. Carrie's familiarity with the team and experience on the perimeter will provide tough obstacles for Smith in his quest to reclaim first-team reps.
According to Tafur, the Raiders' first-round pick, Gareon Conley, will likely miss the first preseason game, which gives Carrie a better chance at holding onto the outside cornerback spot. Training camp standout Breon Borders has taken reps on the inside in the nickel package.
Battle Between Quarterback Backups
"It's been pretty obvious since camp opened, with EJ Manuel getting virtually all the second team work over Connor Cook," McDonald wrote. "The Raiders moved up to get Cook, he started in the playoffs, and he's no lock to be the backup."
As of Tuesday, Cook struggled with ball placement and timing on throws, per Tafur. Quarterback Derek Carr doesn't need preseason reps. His backups will have ample time to stake their claims as the No. 2 signal-caller in Oakland.
Both passers will help decide the battle between wideouts Jaydon Mickens and K.J. Brent. Both have flashed with eye-catching grabs on the practice field. Right now, Johnny Holton stands above both receivers due to his special teams prowess. Pro Football Focus listed him as one of the best in kick coverage during the previous season.
Nonetheless, it's possible the Raiders keep six wideouts on the depth chart despite holding five in the recent past. Remember, keeping the status quo for the sake of it does no good for winning games. Del Rio wants the best 53 men on the roster and that may include six wide receivers due to needs on special teams.