Exploring a few competitions heading into training camp
Training camp is officially underway for the Las Vegas Raiders. With the entire 90-man roster in the building competing for 53 final spots, there are bound to be several position battles going on during camp. The Raiders have quite a few question marks on both sides of the ball leading into August, so they’re going to need at least a few of the players listed below to step up in a big way.
Silver and Black Pride’s Marcus Johnson has already done a deep dive into the Las Vegas’ right guard situation, so our focus will be on five other positions.
After receiving a three-year $12.5 million contract extension, Andre James is the favorite to start at center for the Silver and Black. However, James lacks experience and has struggled in limited regular-season action, as detailed in last week’s Raiders training camp preview column.
Las Vegas also signed former Houston Texans center, Nick Martin to a one-year deal this offseason. Unlike James, Martin has 62 games of starting experience and has only earned a Pro Football Focus grade under 64 once in four seasons. Granted, that one occurrence was last year but Martin has plenty of solid years under his belt to make this a competition at the very least.
James does have some success to lean on. He was one of the Raiders’ standouts during the 2019 preseason, recording a PFF pass-blocking grade of 75.9 and a pass-blocking efficiency rate of 98.5 percent. It will also help that the UCLA product has some chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr, who spoke highly of James in an interview with ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez.
Whoever takes over will have big shoes to fill as they’ll constantly be compared to the All-Pro they’re replacing, Rodney Hudson.
My prediction: I honestly think this is a much closer competition heading into training camp than most people realize. Martin is a proven vet with a track record of success and there’s a reason the organization brought him in, James is the exact opposite. Ultimately, I do think James will win the training camp battle and start Week One because the team obviously believes in and has a lot invested in him. However, don’t be surprised if the third-year pro is on a short leash and Gruden turns to the more experienced Martin if things get off to a bumpy start.
No. 2 Corner
For the second year in a row, Damon Arnette enters training camp in a competition for the Raiders’ second starting cornerback spot. Last season, the 2020 first-round pick ended up winning the job but struggled on the field. He allowed a passer rating of 129.2 when targeted, which ranked 126th out of 137 qualifying corners, and missed several games due to injury.
To make matters worse for Arnette, Las Vegas brought in Casey Hayward a couple of months ago. The veteran defensive back has played for new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley over the last four seasons, including a Pro Bowl campaign back in 2017. Hayward did struggle a year ago, but he’s been one of the most consistent corners in the league for nearly a decade and should enter camp ahead of Arnette on the depth chart.
Isaiah Johnson is another name to keep an eye on here as a “dark horse” candidate to win the job. He’ll be entering his third year with the club and showed some promise in 2020, most notably with a pass breakup to help seal a victory against the Los Angeles Chargers. However, Johnson is more of a long shot as this will likely be a two-horse race. He is currently out with an injury, which won’t help his cause.
My prediction: It’s far too early to slap the bust tag on Arnette, but that label is staring him in the face. He was widely considered a reach when drafted and general manager Mike Mayock has already expressed some frustration with him.
I can’t see a scenario where Hayward doesn’t win this job for the start of the season. He has more familiarity with the new defensive system than anyone in the building not named Gus Bradley and has played extremely well in it. Barring injury, it will take a lot to dethrone the former Charger.
Sticking with the Raiders’ secondary, the team has been looking for someone to cover the slot for several years. They broke the bank in 2019 for Lamarcus Joyner to solve the problem, but that experiment didn’t work out and now it’s back to square one.
Nevin Lawson was the team’s second option behind Joyner at nickel a year ago, but he struggled to get the job done, too. In slot coverage, Lawson surrendered a passer rating of 112.4 and 1.38 yards per coverage snap, and those figures ranked 36th and 35th among 49 cornerbacks with at least 87 slot coverage snaps. Also, he’s suspended for the first two games of the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Then, there’s Amik Robertson who was trying to make the transition from the outside to the inside last season. Robertson saw limited game action in 2020 – only 35 defensive snaps – and general manager Mike Mayock insinuated back in March that the fourth-round pick struggled with the learning curve of the position change. In that same interview, Mayock did sound optimistic that Robertson could make the transition with more experience and a non-COVID offseason, so not all hope is lost.
Douglas comes from Carolina and Philadelphia where he took 75 out of his 2,372 career snaps on the inside, but he did show some promise a few years ago with the Eagles. Nixon has been with the Silver and Black since 2019 and has primarily contributed on special teams. He put together some quality tape during the 2019 preseason, however, he has only played in 193 defensive snaps in two years, and it hasn’t been pretty. Finally, Hobbs is a rookie out of Illinois who, like Robertson, will be transitioning to the inside, a role he only played 6.3 percent of the time in college.
My prediction: I made this same call last year and it came back to bite me, but I’m stubborn, hard-headed and dumb, so I’m going to stick to it: Robertson will win the job.
Robertson’s profile coming out of college made it seem like he’d be a perfect fit as a slot corner, and as a draft nut, I feel I must stick to that. He’s athletic and shifty enough to make the transition, and I think with a full and more normal offseason, the learning curve won’t be as steep. Plus, he’s now has a year of experience in the role under his belt.
As you can tell, there are a lot of question marks surrounding Las Vegas’ secondary heading into the season. One of the questions is who are the starting safeties going to be? Not just at one of the two spots, but both.
The expectation is rookie Trevon Moehrig will start at free safety. That’s a spot the former Horned Frog excelled at in college, but he was also used in a more hybrid role and would roam the field, much like how Gus Bradley used Derwin James in Los Angeles. Thus, Moehrig might be best as a “positionless” player where he lines up deep and in the box, creating more opportunities for others at free safety.
If that’s the case, we could see Tyree Gillespie get more playing time, as he excelled in the center field role for Missouri. However, this will likely be less of a battle between Moehrig and Gillespie, and more of a competition featuring Gillespie, Johnathan Abram and Karl Joseph to see who has more versatility. That’s where the former Tiger may fall to his competition because he has less experience playing as a strong safety.
Abram, on the other hand, certainly has the aggressiveness to line up in the box but needs to tone it down a bit to become a reliable deep defender and more versatile. His ferocity does help when taking on blocks and to rack up tackles, but it also leads to some poor angles when he’s lined up deep and that happened far too often a year ago.
Then there’s Joseph, who might be the perfect balance between Abram and Gillespie. In 2019, Joseph spent about 55 percent of his time at free safety and about 30.6 percent in the box and put together a strong campaign before an injury put him on the self. However, the defensive back struggled last year in Cleveland when his usage tilted to about 45.6 percent deep and 33.3 percent down low.
So, we can see Joseph is better with a more versatile role, but the question is if he’s good enough at either the free or strong safety spots to warrant supplanting the specialists – Gillespie and Abram – on the depth chart? Versatility is a great trait to have, but it requires a high level of competency in multiple facets to stay on the field and consistently produce. That’s something that Karl has always been on the fringe of proving but hasn’t quite accomplished.
My prediction: As you might have been able to tell, I think Tre’von Moehrig is already the best safety in the Raiders’ locker room. I’m fully confident that he’ll start on Day One, it’s just a matter of how big a role do they want the second-round pick to take on. Is he just going to be a free safety, or will he be used in multiple spots like he was in college?
Starting on the other side of Moehrig I think will ultimately be Johnathan Abram. While my preference would be for Karl Joseph, the organization has a lot invested in Abram. He enters a pivotal year three where the Silver and Black will want to see a large sample size to determine if Abram’s fifth-year option should be picked up. Similar to James, I think the 2019 first-round pick will be on a short leash but will get the nod heading into September.
Everyone knows Darren Waller is the Raiders’ top target and that’s not changing anytime soon. But the team needs someone from its wide receiver room to step up and take over the “X” role on the outside.
Last year’s first-round pick, Henry Ruggs III, would be the clear choice and likely the guy everyone in the organization wants to see fill this role. However, Ruggs’ struggles and lack of production as a rookie leave it as an open competition heading into training camp. He needs to prove that he’s more than just a speed receiver and that starts in August.
Bryan Edwards is another sophomore that’s a contender at the X receiver spot. Coming out of South Carolina, Edwards was known as a big, physical wideout who can bring down contested catches, a skill set that translates well as an ‘X’. However, he’s never been great at creating separation and suffered a couple of injuries that stunted his growth last season.
Las Vegas’ most underrated free-agent signing this offseason, in my opinion, was wide receiver John Brown, who I also think is a dark-horse candidate to win this job. To put it simply, Brown has been productive at every stop along the way during his seven-year career. He had 33 catches for 458 yards and three touchdowns last year in Buffalo after missing seven games due to injury, but therein lies the problem as well. The veteran turned 31 years old in April and is coming off a couple of injuries, a tough combination to overcome.
My prediction: This might come as a bit of a surprise, but I’m going to go with Edwards. While Edwards does struggle to create separation, he does excel at the catch point, whereas Ruggs struggles a bit with both.
At 6’0” and 190 pounds, Ruggs will never be much of a contested-catch threat and while he can run past defenders, he struggled to break free in the short to intermediate areas last year. We’ll see if he can grow in year two, but I’m not holding my breath.
As for Brown, the injury and age concerns are just too much for me. Plus, even with his long track record of production, he’s never really been a true ‘X’ receiver so it’s hard to imagine he’ll all of a sudden blossom into one in year eight.