It seems like every year there's an undrafted receiver in Raiders training camp who is showing up and proving he is worthy of a spot on the roster. The most recent example is Seth Roberts who went from impressing in camp, to practice squad, to last season working his way up to third wide receiver. He replaced Rod Streater who took a similar route from UDFA to starter for the Raiders three years ago.
When these undrafted players decide where they're going to sign based on various factors, but the most important is opportunity. They see opportunity in the current depth chart and in players like Roberts and Streater and Andre Holmes.
The latest undrafted rookie to show up big in Raiders camp is Johnny Holton who has been making impressive plays daily and has seen his opportunities increase as a result.
Holton knows all about opportunities. Or at least he does now. He didn't play high school football, because at the time he wasn't placing a priority on school.
"I decided to work and I wasn't taking school that serious and my grades went low because I was working, just trying to make money to support my family," said Holton, who was one of 11 kids.
One day he decided he didn't like the path he was on and set out to make a new one.
"It changed because I wanted to get my degree," Holton continued. "But it was too late to get my degree, so I ended up getting my GED and by me playing flag football, they discovered me out there and asked me if I wanted to go to Junior college and play. So, I went to Junior college and found out I was a really good football player."
From there he went to Cincinnati where as a senior he would lead the nation with an impressive 27.1 yards per catch. Unfortunately his senior season was cut short by a hamstring injury, causing him to miss the final seven games of the season. The injury still hadn't healed by the time the combine came around. That's when Holton said "I thought it was over with", referring to his NFL dream.
Not playing high school football and just a season and a half of division one football had Holton flying well under the radar. But not so far that the Raiders scouts didn't pick him up. He also had the Lions looking to sign him. He chose Oakland in part to re-unite with Amari Cooper who he knew from childhood.
"He (Amari Cooper) just told me that I'm good enough to play in the NFL anywhere, I just looked at my options and decided the Raiders pass the ball a lot. He said look at my options, look at the depth chart and then decide what I want to do. So, I decided I wanted to be close to him and thought I had an opportunity here, so I came here."
Holton's strong impression wasn't immediate. He seemed downright shaky in offseason practices. But by the time camp came around, this 6-1, 188-pounder had settled in and now he has played himself into a serious contender for the open roster spot at wide receiver. And he has seen his opportunities increase as his performance has improved.
The next step is to put it on the field against an opponent. That first opportunity will occur Friday when the Raiders travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals - a game that the Raiders will be giving the second team and roster hopefuls extensive work.
Derek Carr has watched these undrafted rookies battle for the fifth receiver spot all camp, and is excited to see Holton and the others take the field to prove it.
"Yeah, that's the exciting thing," Carr said of these young hopefuls getting their first game experience. "I sit there and I'm like, ‘I really can't wait to watch Johnny Holton play. I really can't wait to watch Jaydon [Mickens] play.' I'm sitting here watching guys on film and in my head I'm like, ‘I can't wait to watch them ball out in the preseason,' because they're going to get a lot snaps, a lot of reps. I've tried to mentally get them ready for that, because if they make the team whoever makes the team, when the regular season comes it's not like that. I want them to prove themselves and hopefully be able to take some of those reps."
Jack Del Rio said he has seen improvement from a couple of the undrafted receivers fighting for that spot. Though he wouldn't specify who, anyone who has been watching camp, such as myself, could tell you Holton has to be one of them. Others in the mix include KJ Brent, Jaydon Mickens, and Joe Hansley.
"For us the key is what do they do when it's real, when they're going against another opponent?," said Del Rio. "When they're not as familiar with the coverages they're seeing, when they're having to adjust to what they're getting during the game. I feel good about the whole process. We'll continue that evaluation and obviously it goes up a notch when you get into the games."
It's an exciting time for these guys. None more than Holton with the long journey he has taken to get here and the strong impression he has made thus far. To don his official Raiders NFL jersey for the first time as the next step in making his longshot dream a reality.
"I'm looking forward 100%," said Holton. "I'm ready. It will be like a big surprise, being in an NFL stadium playing. I envisioned it. I'm just ready."