For the third straight season, the Oakland Raiders will enter training camp with a slew of new faces. With the cap situation finally fixed and nearly a full complement of draft picks, general manager Reggie McKenzie revamped the roster without having to stick to bargain basement deals as he had done the past two years. As a result, while the Raiders still do not have a great roster, they have one that will be much more competitive from training camp through the season.
Not only did McKenzie bring in more talented players, he also brought in a number of players who will compete for playing time. In his first two years with the team, McKenzie was limited by a severe cap situation. As a result, he often found guys who could start in the NFL and backed them up with very poor quality players. As a result, there was very little competition within the team, and it showed.
This year there will be a number of battles in Raiders camp that will be worth paying close attention to.
The Raiders will head into training camp with four names competing for playing time, Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones Drew, Latavius Murray and Kory Sheets. While there are a couple other running backs who will be in camp, these are the guys who have a real shot at making the team and seeing the field. McFadden and Jones Drew will obviously get the lion’s share of the snaps, but which one will be the starter is anyone’s guess.
McFadden has more big-play potential than Jones Drew, but cannot stay healthy carrying a full load. MJD was one of the best running backs in the league for a while, but overuse in Jacksonville has caused his talents to diminish. Both guys are basically half of a star and the Raiders are hoping that using them in tandem will give them a respectable running game.
While those two will get most of the snaps, I fully expect either Sheets or Murray to see the field a decent amount this year since it’s all but inevitable that McFadden will get hurt at some point. Of the two, Murray is the more likely candidate to emerge as the team’s third back. His combination of size and speed have had the Raiders staff drooling about his potential, enough so that they were willing to put him on injured reserve last season even though he was a sixth round rookie.
The Raiders have three young tight ends with a lot of potential in David Ausberry, Mychal Rivera and Nick Kasa. While Kasa may be the best all-around tight end due to his blocking skills, the competition will be between Ausberry and Rivera, the two pass catchers. Before he was injured in the preseason last year, Ausberry looked well on his way to the starting role. A former wide receiver in college, he uses his speed and massive body to create mismatches in the passing game. Now that he has bulked up, he hopes to also be an impactful player as a blocker.
Rivera is also a very good pass-catcher, but does not have the same physical abilities as Ausberry. He started his rookie year off somewhat slowly before breaking out in the second half of the season. Much like Ausberry, Rivera is focusing on trying to become a better blocker so that he can be a three-down tight end. Ausberry and Rivera are very similar in both their positives as well as their drawbacks, but it is Ausberry’s speed and ability to create mismatches that should win the day. In the end, naming a starter will be rather ceremonial as I expect the Raiders to use a lot of two-TE sets, getting both guys highly involved with the offense.
Rather than going out and signing specific guys for specific positions, offensive line coach Tony Sparano told McKenzie to just go out and find good linemen and he’d figure out what to do with them. That’s exactly what McKenzie did, as the Raiders now have Donald Penn, Menelik Watson, Khalif Barnes, Kevin Boothe, Stefan Wisniewski, Austin Howard and Gabe Jackson, all of whom will be competing for starting jobs.
They also have depth behind those guys in Matt McCants, Tony Bergstrom and Lucas Nix. The most likely combination of starters along the line will go as follows from left tackle to right tackle:
Donald Penn, Gabe Jackson, Stefen Wisniewski, Austin Howard, Menelik Watson
But none of those guys — besides Wisniewski — are assured of a starting job. Both Barnes and Boothe have very legitimate chances to unseat one of the guards. And Austin Howard also has a legitimate chance to earn a job over Penn or Watson.
With reports emerging from organized team activities that Derek Carr is impressing the coaching staff, I would be remiss not to include this as a camp battle. But with that being said, I simply do not see Carr winning the starting job or even seriously competing for it in camp. The Raiders want Matt Schaub as their starter and they want Carr to sit a year and learn. Because of that, I expect that head coach Dennis Allen will ride Schaub into the season.
Then again, no one thought Terrelle Pryor had any chance of being the opening day starter in 2013 and then he was. If Carr clearly outshines Schaub, Allen will have no choice. But Carr is still a rookie and he will likely hit some speed bumps in camp. Let’s also not forget that so far, all of the reports about how Carr stem from time being spent in shorts and a t-shirt, where nearly all quarterbacks look good. If Carr continues to dazzle with pads on, people can really start speculating.