The Union Democrat
Expect big things out of the Raiders’ big draft class
The Raiders went into this year’s NFL Draft with nine picks, two more than they’ve held in any other year since moving to Las Vegas, hoping to build a rookie class that could help transform the franchise.
So far, so good. Las Vegas’ top brass came out of training camp with plenty to be happy about, but perhaps nothing produced more smiles than the progression of the recent draft picks.
All nine players made the initial 53-man roster, marking the second straight year that’s happened under general manager Dave Zielger and coach Josh Mcdaniels. It never occurred in the four previous seasons under coach Jon Gruden’s watch.
The rookies stood out every step of the way through practice, making their overall potential evident to anyone who watched. The draft class was perhaps even so productive that team officials felt the need to change their tenor.
They’ve gone from hyping up the class as potentially foundational in April to subtly tempering expectations heading into the season opener at 1:25 p.m. Sunday at the Denver Broncos.
“None of them are what they’re going to be,” Mcdaniels said of the rookies in his most recent news conference last week. “So, the development process continues. We had that conversation with the guys this morning, this is not the end, this is the beginning of a different phase of the year... I’m excited for our coaching staff to keep working with them and coaching them, and those guys are all excited to continue to work and develop, and hopefully some of them are going to contribute here quickly.”
Here’s a rundown of the nine players in the Raiders’ draft class and where they could contribute in the regular season.
Edge rusher Tyree Wilson (firstround pick)
It’s not so much what Wilson has done in training camp as much as how he looks.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive linemen missed the first three weeks of practices as he recovered from a foot injury, but returned in time for the final preseason game and immediately looked the part. He towers over teammates and blockers alike, and that doesn’t stop him from moving faster than almost all of them too.
The freakish athletic ability is what made him the No. 7 overall pick out of Texas Tech.
Wilson is still getting up to speed conditioning-wise, as he was noticeably gassed after a few plays in his preseason debut.
The Raiders have long been expected to bring Wilson along slowly and start veteran Chandler Jones in front of him, though that may be in doubt after Tuesday when complaints about the team were posted to the latter’s Instagram account.
“I feel great,” Wilson said. “Ready to continue to build and keep stacking days with my brothers.”
Tight end Michael Mayer (second-round pick)
The former Notre Dame star already looks like an Nfl-caliber receiver. He’s got a way to go, by his own admission, to become an Nfl-caliber blocker.
Star edge rusher Maxx Crosby gave Mayer what the rookie described as, “definitely my welcome to the NFL moment,” on the first day of padded practices when he repeatedly drove him into the ground. But Mayer feels like he’s improved a lot since then as a pass protector, and there’s been no question about his ability as a pass catcher.
Veteran Austin Hooper may officially be listed as the Raiders’ starter at his position, but Mayer will get plenty of opportunities especially with the team expected to use more two tight end sets this season.
“I’ve gotten extremely better going against Maxx in practice every single day,” Mayer said. “He’s bringing it, I’m trying to bring it as much as I can, and I know it’s going to help me this season and in the long run.”
Defensive tackle Byron Young (third-round pick)
Like Wilson, Young missed a chunk of training camp with an injury. But he appears to be past the undisclosed ailment now as he closed the summer session building on promise he started to show all the way back at rookie minicamp in May.
The Raiders have discussed moving Wilson around the defensive line, letting him play both on the end and in the interior, but Young may get such opportunities just as frequently as the season progresses. They may start the season slow for the long-time Alabama linchpin coming off injury, but he should get his share of snaps as the year goes on.
Wide receiver Tre Tucker (thirdround pick)
It’s impossible to miss the 5-foot-9, 185-pound burner out of Cincinnati’s speed. He regularly blows by defensive backs and might be the fastest player on the team.
But his hands weren’t as reliable as his feet in the preseason, as Tucker struggled with a number of dropped passes. It’s not too major of a concern, as the NFL is littered with top-level receivers who became surer-handed over time as a professional.
Tucker might do his best work out of the slot, and that’s a crowded area with the likes of teammates Hunter
Renfrow, Jakobi Meyers and Deandre Carter. But Tucker should still get some chances especially with the Raiders cutting a veteran with a similar skillset in Phillip Dorsett, who then signed onto the Broncos’ practice squad.
“The drops, that’s on me,” Tucker said. “Obviously, I’ll get that corrected. I’ll work overtime.”
Cornerback Jakorian Bennett (fourth-round pick)
Not many would have expected the speedster out of Maryland to be the most likely day-one starter out of the draft class, but that appears to be the case going into the Broncos’ game. He’s taken the most first-team reps opposite top cornerback Marcus Peters, and next to slot cornerback Nate Hobbs, in practice.
Bennett admitted to some nerves heading into training camp but no one would have known it with the way he’s welcomed matching up with the likes of Davante Adams and the Raiders’ other top receivers.
Bennett hasn’t been perfect, but he’s got all the tools to succeed in the NFL, namely quickness, ball skills and deceptive physicality. Veterans David Long and Brandon Facyson may push Bennett for playing time but the second cornerback job is Bennett’s as long as he’s as fearless in the games as he’s been in practice.
“Confidence has gotten way better,” Bennett said. “That’s a daily thing just kind of staying on top of that because your brain is just a muscle just like everything else.”
Quarterback Aidan O’connell (fourth-round pick)
The former Purdue standout led the NFL in both QBR and passer rating through the preseason. The pure pocket passer has looked right at home in Mcdaniels’ offense — just as Ziegler said he predicted from the first time he watched film on him a year ago.
There might be more fan excitement for O’connell than any other rookie but he’s still likely to go into the season as the Raiders’ emergency quarterback behind starter Jimmy Garoppolo and veteran backup Brian Hoyer.
Mcdaniels has stressed that the backup situation is fluid though. If Garoppolo goes down with injury for an extended period, as he’s done multiple times throughout his career, don’t be surprised if O’connell emerges as the choice to start in his stead.
Safety Chris Smith (fifth-round pick)
If the two-time national champion at Georgia is going to make an impact in his first season, it’s likely to be on special teams. Smith appears to be getting more of a developmental year in the secondary considering the Raiders kept four other safeties.
Strong safety Marcus Epps and free safety Tre’von Moehrig are entrenched as the starters, but second-year former undrafted free agent Isaiah Pola-mao flashed just as much in training camp. Roderic Teamer is another proven player at Smith’s position.
Smith will need to show his ability and rack up tackles on kick and punt teams to earn a bigger role defensively.
Linebacker Amari Burney (sixthround pick)
Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme requires linebackers who are more skilled than usual in pass coverage. It’s an area where the Raiders fell short a year ago, but one where they’re confident they can improve this season.
Burney is one reason why. The 6-foot2, 228-pound player started his college career at Florida as a safety, and his pass instincts have looked sharp throughout training camp.
Burney broke up several passes, though also dropped a few interceptions. He shares a similar skillset with fellow former safety turned linebacker Divine Deablo, and therefore makes for a natural primary backup.
Defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera (seventh-round pick)
Las Vegas must have been tempted to try to sneak the 6-foot-2, 315-pound bull-rusher out of Arizona State through waivers and get him onto the practice squad at the NFL’S roster deadline.
Instead, Ziegler and his staff lived up to their word of comprising the initial roster of the most deserving players regardless of their backgrounds. No one who watched training camp would say Silvera wasn’t deserving of a roster spot.
He was one of the biggest revelations, bullying offensive linemen and even getting Crosby to crown him as a future “big-time player.” Silvera looks like no ordinary seventh-round pick.
And just maybe this is no ordinary draft class.