Unlike numerous other teams in the NFL, the Oakland Raiders are pretty set in stone when it comes to who will be starting for the team this season. Of the 22 offensive and defensive starters, it’s safe to say that 19 are locked down. However, the three that are open are as tight as any other battle in the league, not to mention the handful of additional roles that need to be filled as well. Bearing all that in mind, here are the position battles to look out for as the Raiders progress through the preseason.
1. Right tackle
The release of last year’s starter Austin Howard has done nothing to solidify perhaps the most wide open starting spot for Oakland. Free agent signee Marshall Newhouse is currently penciled in as the starter, with several additional options waiting in the wings. Last year’s seventh round selection Vadal Alexander filled in a few times last season, and didn’t look terrible during that time, though he’d ideally be the top backup. Fourth-round selection David Sharpe has been speculated to be the long-term solution, though he has dealt with injuries during training camp. Denver Kirkland, a practice squad promotee from last season, is around as well.
Unfortunately, left tackle Donald Penn‘s holdout has bogged down this battle somewhat. Sharpe had lined up in his place before his injury troubles, and Kirkland and Newhouse have both had to take over afterwards. Penn’s return should set the competition back on track.
2. Middle linebacker
As good as general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio have been, the duo has struggled to find an answer for the Raiders at middle linebacker. Ben Heeney began last season at the position, but he was ineffective before an ankle injury ended his season. Perry Riley was signed off the street to fill in, performing admirably the rest of the way. However, he remains an unsigned free agent.
This offseason has seen the position in flux. With Heeney on the non-football injury list, 2016 late rounder Cory James and practice squad promotee Tyrell Adams traded places there during OTA’s. Training camp saw fifth round selection Marquel Lee enter the fold as well; he’s currently listed as the lead man on the team’s unofficial depth chart. The coaching staff has spoke highly of the rookie, but it may be a daunting task for him to face. If Heeney can’t return and the remaining three underwhelm, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team convince Riley to return for another one year pact.
3. Defensive tackle
It was somewhat of a shock to see the Raiders part ways with Dan Williams, but considering his price tag and poor play in 2016, it also didn’t come out of nowhere. Williams had mostly split time with Justin Ellis last year. The latter figures to remain a starter to begin this season. However, the spot next to him has yet to be filled.
Darius Latham, an undrafted rookie who made the final 53 man roster last season, is currently in contention. Latham did well during his brief moments on the field in 2016, so a jump forward is certainly in the cards. The Raiders are probably hoping that third round pick Eddie Vanderdoes flashes during preseason action; the team placed him ahead of Latham on the depth chart, though that could change as game action progresses. Vanderdoes fought injuries and weight problems during college, but he’s been relatively healthy in training camp and worked hard to shed some pounds beforehand.
The team’s defensive scheme will come into play as well, more so than at middle linebacker. Their depth chart is now set at a 4-3 formation, but they’ll use some 3-4 looks as well. That could mean having Ellis at nose tackle, Mario Edwards at one defensive end spot and one of Denico Autry and Jihad Ward at the other.
Other position battles
Slot receiver: The Raiders signed Cordarrelle Patterson to compete with incumbent Seth Roberts in the slot. Thus far, the latter seems more likely to nab it, but the two could split time evenly as well. K.J. Brent, who spent all last year on the practice squad, has done well during second team reps.
Backup receiver spots: Whoever loses the slot receiver battle between Patterson and Roberts will most likely not be in danger of losing a spot on the roster. The two, along with starters Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, figure to fill the top four spots on the depth chart. The rest will be fighting for their lives. Johnny Holton made the team out of camp as an undrafted rookie last year, and impressed on special teams. The previously mentioned Brent will be a threat as well, along with fellow practice squad member Jaydon Mickens. Three undrafted players will also mix in: Isaac Whitney, Keon Hatcher and Ishmael Zamora. The former has stood out thus far.
Backup quarterback: Derek Carr is obviously entrenched as the franchise QB, but his immediate backup is another story. Connor Cook made his first start during the team’s playoff game against the Houston Texans (a first for the league as well) in relief of an injured Carr, but wasn’t overly impressive. Buffalo Bills draft bust EJ Manuel signed to try and earn a roster spot and has been surprisingly effective, passing Cook on the depth chart for the moment.
Backup running back: DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard formed a nice little three-headed monster with the departed Latavius Murray last year. Marshawn Lynch has stepped in to replace the latter as starter, which leaves Washington and Richard to fight it out for #2, though they will both receive looks alongside Lynch. Seventh round rookie Elijah Hood, former Green Bay Packers practice squader John Crockett and the newly returned George Atkinson III will be in the mix for a final roster spot as well.
Slot corner: The top three corner positions seemed locked in as training camp began, with Sean Smith and David Amerson on the outside and T.J. Carrie in the slot. However, Smith was surprisingly demoted to second team at the end of last week, resulting in Carrie moving outside and undrafted rookie Breon Borders stepping inside. It remains to be seen whether this change will be permanent, but corner has become muddled suddenly. First round pick Gareon Conley will be a factor upon his return from injury, and second round pick Obi Melifonwu, a hybrid safety, may receive looks as well.
Backup corner spots: Borders’ current status at the slot seemingly came from thin air, but he’s earned with some eye-catching coverage skills. Dexter McDonald, who was stuck at the end of the depth chart last season, has also looked good in camp. Antonio Hamilton, practice squader Kenneth Durden and undrafted rookie Chris Humes will also work to earn a final roster position.
Return specialist: Patterson, a Pro Bowler on special teams last year, figures to have the head start here, but Richard, Holton, Carrie, Mickens, Washington and Atkinson III will all be fighting for time as well.