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Tight Competition at Wide Receiver Taking Shape

Tight Competition at Wide Receiver Taking Shape

In his press conferences this week, Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has challenged his wide receiver group to step up. Here’s a look at who is going to make the roster and who will not.

With half of the preseason in the books, several roster competitions are heating up. The quagmire at wide receiver might be the deepest and present the most difficult decisions. With just under two weeks before the Sept. 1 deadline to the 53-player roster cut, several have a little time to make a final push. Let’s look at where the Raiders stand heading into Week 3 of the preseason and predict what Coach Jon Gruden will do.

Amari Cooper/Jordy Nelson 

Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson are locks to make the team. Neither played in Saturday’s 19-15 loss to the L.A. Rams, and only Nelson has recorded an official stat, with one reception for four yards on two targets in Week 1 against Detroit. Both will likely see significant time in Friday’s game against Green Bay. Coaching staffs typically play their starters for the first half of Week 3.

While Cooper is well known to Raider fans, they might not know what to make of the guy the team brought in to replace Michael Crabtree. Even at 33, Nelson can get downfield and shouldn’t be thought of simply as a “possession” receiver. Cooper and Nelson will be in two-receiver sets, which will lead to deep passing targets, as they give excellent play-action looks. Even though he hasn’t seen much game action, Nelson has paid dividends by mentoring younger wide receivers.

“He’s been a playmaker on the field,” Gruden said Monday. “He’s been a consistent reliable target at a couple of positions. And he’s been a really good influence behind the scenes. We’ve been really, really happy with his addition to this team.”

Prediction: Cooper and Nelson will be the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively.

Martavis Bryant

After trading a third-round pick to Pittsburgh to get him, Martavis Bryant will get every opportunity to secure the No. 3 receiver spot. The only thing preventing him from being included with Cooper and Nelson is his lack of availability.

“Sometimes he comes out to play, sometimes he doesn’t,” Gruden said Friday. “It’s good to see him because he’s really special, like the white tiger.”

When on the field, Bryant has shown the physical skills that make him such an intriguing prospect. His 6-foot, 4-inch frame, and 4.4 40 speed make him a natural deep threat. He doesn’t have to be targeted downfield to make an impact, as he can pull coverage and open the field for another target, or gain yards off a short pass. He took this drag route in a “Mesh” concept and simply outran the coverage. This is Bryant’s lone catch of the preseason that went for 18 yards. He has been targeted four times, all in week 1 as he did not play in week 2.

Prediction: Bryant will make the team, but his availability will dictate his production. He will be motivated to position himself for a big deal following the final year of his rookie contract.

Seth Roberts

Seth Roberts has become an enigma. He jumps between playing the hero and goat, sometimes in the same game. For every big play, there’s a careless drop or fumble. Making his case more mystifying is that he has not been on the field for either preseason game. He must take advantage of any opportunities he has to prove the inconsistencies are behind him.

After acquiring Bryant, rumors surfaced that the Raiders were looking to move Roberts for a draft pick. They either didn’t find anyone interested in acquiring the fifth-year wideout or didn’t get an offer that matched their demands.

The Raiders paid Roberts a $2 million roster bonus on March 16, when his $2.25 million base salary became guaranteed. Could the Raiders be looking to get a return on their $4.25 million and keep him? Will a team dealing with injuries make an offer GM Reggie McKenzie likes? This decision will be made over the next two games.

Prediction: This is the toughest call to make. After again failing to find a trade partner, Roberts will be released.

Ryan Switzer 

McKenzie pulled off a heist in the offseason when he traded defensive lineman Jihad Ward, a second-round pick, to Dallas for the wideout and return man Ryan Switzer. It was a move that turned Switzer’s world “upside down,” but one he is embracing.

“I’m ecstatic to be here,” Ryan said, “especially on the offensive side of the ball. You look at the great slot receivers in this league and all of them got great outside guys around you. That’s what makes that middle of the field so deadly, is when you’ve got outside receivers that can put pressure, not only on corners but on safeties. That leaves me to deal with Nickel’s and linebackers.”

Switzer’s biggest play in preseason is this touchdown on a scramble drill during Week 1. It’s his only catch, but he’s only been targeted twice. He called for a fair catch on his only punt-return attempt, but his lack of playing time indicates he’s going to make the roster. He should get significant action against the Packers.

Prediction: Switzer will be the Raiders primary slot receiver and punt/kickoff returner.

Griff Whalen

Signing a one year $790k deal with the Raiders this offseason give Gruden another option in the slot and for kick return duties. He joins Switzer in the mold of the smaller but shifty wide receiver that the New England Patriots have utilized for a few years. With Roberts and Bryant both missing time, Whalen has filled in and caught the eye of his head coach.

“He’s just been steady since he’s been here,” Head Coach Jon Gruden said during training camp. “Seth Roberts is out. Has been out for a little over a week. Hasn’t been able to go in the slot much. Martavis has been out. Whalen has stepped up. He earned that right. He’s doing some great things.”

Thus far Griff has been targeted six times pulling in three of them for 20 yards and this touchdown. He showed off his hands pulling in a pass that was thrown behind him on this slant. Reliable hands and precision route running are the two most important traits for a wide receiver in Gruden’s offense. Routes are designed to create stress on the defense and the spacing is critical. If the play calls for a 6-yard route, it has to break at six yards.

Prediction: Gruden chooses Whalen over Roberts. Reliability is the key here as well as special teams value.

Johnny Holton

Holton was an undrafted free agent signing made after the 2016 NFL draft. In his 31 games, he has accumulated 252 yards on 11 receptions, scoring three touchdowns. His physical talent has not translated into a great deal of production though he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to showcase those skills.

He runs the out on this flood concept and gets the opportunity to showcase his speed in space. Holton needs to take advantage of what opportunities he gets in these next two game to prove he is more than just a speed guy. In Gruden’s last stint with the Raiders, his two main receivers where Tim Brown and Jerry Rice. Both guys were nearing 40 years of age and relied on precision to get open. Speed is great to have but it isn’t as highly rated in the west coast offense. Holton is eligible for one of the four positions on the practice squad that can be used on players with two accrued seasons. There is a chance he could stay with the team even if he doesn’t make the roster.

Prediction: Holton will be waived but claimed by another team.

Marcell Ateman

Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie tabbed the 6’5″ wideout in the 7th round of the 2018 draft. Marcell is not a world class athlete but he did run a 4.6 second 40 yard dash time at the combine so he is not exactly slow either. He has shown the ability to win contested catches but does need to learn to use his size a bit more. Overall he is a perfect fit for Gruden’s offense.

“I like Ateman,” Gruden said after the third day of training camp. “Do you like Ateman? Ateman makes plays every day.”

Ateman has been targeted seven times seizing five of them for 47 yards including this 25-yard reception running a drag route in a “Mesh” concept. The tight end running the hitch/dig route option is typically the first read while two other receivers run crossing routes underneath. The Raiders have converted a couple of 3rd downs with this concept in their two preseason games. It fits Marcell perfectly allowing him to make the catch in traffic and not ask him to change direction. The decision on Ateman will most likely come down to whether or not the staff believes they can stash him on the practice squad.

Prediction: Marcell will get the 6th and final receiver spot on the roster.

Dwayne Harris, Isaac Whitney, Keon Hatcher, Saeed Blacknail

Of the four remaining receivers on the roster, only Dwayne Harris is ineligible to be placed on the practice squad. The other three will most likely be trying to put enough on film to warrant practice squad consideration of hoping another NFL team takes notice of them and claims them off waivers.

Isaac Whitney has caught both of his targets for 15 yards this preseason. Saeed Blacknail hauled in one of the two passes to come his way picking up 21 yards on that reception. Keon Hatcher has been targeted three times though they have all fallen incomplete and Dwayne Harris has not been targeted in either contest.

Of the group, Whitney and Blacknail are the types of raw size and speed guys that typically intrigue coaching staffs. Would they allocate two of the 10 available practice squad positions for wide receivers? Will any players who they have rated higher become available during roster cuts and get those positions?

Predictions: Dwayne Harris will be cut. Keon Hatcher, Issac Whitney, and Saeed Blacknail will be waived with Isaac Whitney starting the season on the practice squad.

Synopsis: With two games left the wide receiver position is fluid. A key injury or a young player stringing great performances together could shake up the depth chart. The third preseason game is considered a dress rehearsal with starters typically playing into the second half and a solid team like the Green Bay Packers are a great opponent for the Raiders to face in such an important contest. Most of the murkiness surrounding many of the current position battles should be clearing up after this game.

Chris Reed is the former Senior NFL analyst for Silver and Black Today.

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