This is the time of year that the 53-man roster projections come out. If you’re into that sort of thing and are attempting to put one together for the Raiders, no position is going to be more difficult to predict that wide receiver.
The one certainty is the starters — Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson.
The certainties end there.
We can probably figure that since the team traded a third round pick to acquire Martavis Bryant that he will make the team. But it’s clear he has had some issues that have annoyed Jon Gruden such as not getting his playbook down and missing practice.
This week Bryant missed two practices due to migraines, which he has long had issues with. He shouldn’t be faulted for that, but it’s difficult to rely on someone when you don’t know if they’re going to be available to you on a day to day basis. He has not worked much with the first team in camp, usually lining up with either the second or third team.
It gets completely unpredictable after that.
There is a group of wide receivers, any of whom could find themselves on the outside of the bubble come roster cutdown day. Those receivers, in no particular order, are Seth Roberts, Ryan Switzer, Griff Whalen, Dwayne Harris, Marcell Ateman, and Johnny Holton.
That’s nine total wide receivers. Teams usually keep five wide receivers on a roster, six at most.
You all can argue all you want about who among these final six will absolutely make the team and who has ‘no chance’, but trust me, none of them are locks to either make the team or be cut.
“Well it’s been a similar problem that we’ve always had,” Gruden said of the glut of receivers to choose from. “We get these receivers and we train them from the very beginning to play multiple positions. [Wide receivers coach] Edgar Bennett has done a great job. It’s going to be probably right down to the wire to see who makes it, how many guys we can week. Special teams as well will be a determining factor.”
You can also say that this is a good problem to have, if you like. But, personally, I’d suggest one or two standouts would be preferable.
Roberts gets villainized among Raiders fans, mostly for dropped passes, but he earned his contract with tough play both as a receiver and as a blocker and special teams guy.
The Raiders traded former round two pick Jihad Ward to the Cowboys for Switzer and yet Gruden has been playing him behind Whalen of late, both in practice as well as in the team’s first preseason game last Friday against the Lions, noting that Whalen has “stepped up” and “earned that right” to play first team ahead of Switzer. But the competition continues.
“Well it’s a very competitive situation. They’re neck-and-neck,” Gruden said of Whalen and Switzer. “Special teams will have a big part of that, but also shear production. You have to be able to go in there and make plays. You have to be able to go in there and block linebackers sometimes and big safeties. You have to know a lot of assignments because Derek [Carr] is going to change the play at the last second. It’s neck and neck with those guys. When Seth Roberts gets back, it’s a very competitive position at the slot.”
As Gruden mentioned, don’t underestimate the factor special teams work plays in this equation. Harris and Holton are both solid special teams contributors and Ateman is a big, promising rookie who made a play on special teams against the Lions.
Harris can return kicks, play the gunner or “flyer” position, and do a decent bit as a slot receiver too. Holton is a speedster who excelled as a gunner last season. Ateman is the only jump ball specialist the team has right now and he has shown he can do a lot more than that.
That is to say nothing of last year’s promising undrafted wide receivers Isaac Whitney and Keon Hatcher and this year’s UDFA Saeed Blacknall, who Gruden has spoken highly of this camp. They are likely hoping to grab a practice squad spot.
There are still three preseason games to try and figure this out. Saturday the team will have their second preseason game. But there is no more camp left to help figure this out, so from here the potential six player battle for 2-3 rosters spots will have to be fought on the field versus another team.