The 2016 Raiders take the field in Napa in less than an hour. When they do, there will be a few positions on which I will be keeping a close eye.
1. Right tackle: Austin Howard vs Menelik Watson
With these two alternating more from the injured list than the bench, it’s been difficult to figure who has the advantage. This battle took place last training camp as well. Watson won it, then was lost for the season with an injury, giving the job to Howard by default. Then Howard held down the position last season before missing the final three games due to his own injury.
While Howard was recovering from that injury, Watson was given the first crack at re-taking the right tackle job. Howard returned for minicamps and the two were alternating reps. Now we will watch to see if that continues or if one of them takes over all first team reps until further notice.
2. Slot cornerback: TJ Carrie vs DJ Hayden
Also alternating reps in OTA’s and minicamp were Carrie and Hayden at the slot corner spot. Carrie has the experience in the slot, so he figures to have the advantage. That being said, the team is giving former 12th overall pick Hayden one last shot to find his role with this team. Playing the slot is new ground for Hayden, but the team hopes his quick feet make him a good option there.
3. Return jobs: Taiwan Jones/TJ Carrie vs UDFA hopefuls
As of minicamp, the Raiders said the kick and punt return jobs belong to Jones and Carrie respectively. There are several rookies who would like to take one or both of those jobs. Leading the way are undrafted receivers Joe Hansley and Jaydon Mickens. They will be battling for the fifth wide receiver spot to be the speedy slot receiver the team currently needs. The qualities of a slot receiver also work well in the return game.
4. Running back: Latavius Murray vs DeAndre Washington
Murray is the team’s workhorse back, but the team would prefer to scale back some of that workload. How much of it gets scaled back could depend on what they see from rookie fifth round pick DeAndre Washington. Ideally, the workload would be split something around 60-40 which would benefit both backs, keeping them fresh and limiting injury risk. Washington may not be built to be an every down back so I wouldn’t figure he would take over the bulk of the carries. Unfortunately running back is one of the more difficult positions to judge in camp, due to tackling being prohibited. Even harder to judge is without pads which go on day three.
5. Middle linebacker: Malcolm Smith vs Ben Heeney
If we’re talking inside linebacker, these two will see the field together. Smith missed some time with injury this offseason. When he returned, Heeney remained on the field at middle linebacker in 4-3 sets. That may have been just because Heeney was already acclimated to the job while Smith was working his way back. The team figures to use a lot of 3-4 sets this year, which means both of them could start. Last season Smith led the team in snaps. It will be interesting if he returns to that role or if Heeney is the one staying on the field in different schemes. Heeney could be a real wildcard for this linebacking corps.