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5 potential X-factors against Patriots

The Raiders should go back to the young guys this week

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Indianapolis Colts v Las Vegas Raiders
Jermaine Eluemunor
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After a disappointing loss last Thursday, it’s time to shift our focus back to the guys on the Las Vegas Raiders’ roster who are fighting for their future with the team.

Week 15 brings an interesting matchup against the New England Patriots as the Raiders are slight favorites on DraftKings Sportsbook. The Patriots head into Sunday in a three-way tie for the AFC’s final Wild Card spot while the Raiders are all but mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.

That should give Las Vegas a “nothing to lose” mentality and create opportunities for a few guys to prove themselves heading into the last month of the season.

Hroniss Grasu/Thayer Munford

Denver Broncos v Las Vegas Raiders
Thayer Munford
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Head coach Josh McDaniels said last week that starting guard Alex Bars will probably miss “a little bit of time” after Bars suffered a knee injury against the Rams. The Raiders also placed guard Lester Cotton on injured reserve last week and are reportedly cutting John Simpson, leading to one question on the interior of the offensive line heading into Week 15: “Who’s going to play?”

Over the weekend, Grasu got called up from the practice squad to the active roster as a potential option to fill in for Bars. Grasu is naturally a center but he does have some experience playing guard with the Ravens. The problem is that was four years ago and he hasn’t played in a regular season game since 2020.

He did get some reps during the preseason back in August, logging 82 snaps — all at center — and fared well with a 68.3 PFF run-blocking grade and just one pressure surrendered. At 31 years old, the former Oregon Duck doesn’t have much of a future with the team. But his contract is set to expire at the end of the year so a good performance this weekend could earn him another short-term deal as a backup for a year or two.

However, the Raiders do have another option at their disposal, inserting Munford into the starting lineup. The rookie has experience playing guard in college and showing off some versatility could elevate his status as the team’s sixth offensive lineman and lead to more playing time or a bigger role moving forward.

The team could also put him at right tackle and slide Jermaine Eluemunor inside to guard, but regardless, Munford would have a big opportunity to prove himself.

Whoever lines up on the interior of Las Vegas’ offensive will be in for a battle. Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise have been wreaking havoc in New England for a while, and up-and-comer Christian Barmore is eligible to return from IR this week.

Jermaine Elumunour

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers
Jermaine Eluemunor
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Eluemunor, he’s been fantastic for the Silver and Black since the bye week, especially in pass protection.

Since Week 7, he hasn’t allowed a single sack or QB hit and has only surrendered 13 hurries, a little more than one and a half per game. That led to a 79.2 pass protection grade from PFF which ranks tied for 16th among offensive tackles during that timeframe. To make those numbers even more impressive, he’s lined up across some note-worthy pass-rushers like Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack and Uchenna Nwosu.

However, as life goes in the NFL, Eluemunor will have another tough battle against Matthew Judon this Sunday, and arguably his most difficult ot date.

Judon has lined up as a left outside linebacker on a little less than 75 percent of his defensive snaps this season, meaning he and Eluemunor are going to be in for a battle all afternoon. Not only is Judon tied for the league lead with 14.5 sacks, but he’s also tied for the sixth-most pressures with 58. In other words, he’s not just some flash-in-the-pan pass rusher who gets clean-up sacks, he’s one of the most consistent rushers in the league.

If Elumuenor can finish with the upper hand in this one-on-one matchup, he can expect to get a big raise in the offseason from his $1.25 million salary for 2022.

Luke Masterson

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders
Luke Masterson
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With Jayon Brown on the shelf last week, Masterson got the start and made the most of it by having probably his best game as a pro. He earned a 72.2 run defense grade from PFF and recorded two defensive stops in coverage while conceding just one yard after the catch on three receptions.

The whole performance was a welcomed sight but his growth as a run defender is encouraging and will be put to the test this weekend.

While Patriots’ running back Rhamondre Stevenson suffered an ankle injury on Monday night and could miss this Sunday’s game, that could speed up the timeline for fellow running back Damien Harris who’s battling a quad injury. Harris was considered a game-time decision against the Cardinals so there’s a chance he’ll be ready to go this week.

Various ailments have held Harris to just 383 rushing yards this season, but he’s still been an efficient rusher with 4.6 yards per attempt which ranks inside the top 20 for running backs this season. He’s also been a key component of New England’s offense in the past, which should get amplified if Stevenson is sidelined.

Even if their top two running backs can’t play, expect the Pats to still lean heavily on their running game. Rookie Pierre Strong Jr. looked impressive in limited action on Monday with 70 rushing yards and one touchdown on just five carries, 14.0 yards per attempt.

Long story short, this is an opportunity for Masterson to show growth and prove that he’s worthy of a starting spot heading into the offseason.

Isaiah Pola-Mao

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders
Isaiah Pola-Mao
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Pola-Mao has been getting more playing time over the last couple of weeks and has been solid, popping up on all three levels of the defense.

As a pass rusher, he recorded three pressures against the Chargers and made sure Justin Herbert felt his presence with a sack and a QB hit accounting for two of those three. He only logged four snaps against the run in the two games combined but managed to pick up two tackles, one being a defensive stop. And in coverage, he’s surrendered just 26 yards on five targets and added two more stops to his stat line.

Coverage is likely where Pola-Mao will have his most significant impact on Sunday as New England has a couple of strong tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry is coming off of his most-productive game of the season with three catches for 70 yards against the Cardinals. He’s also been uniquely efficient, ranking tied for 24th among tight ends with 28 receptions while having the second-most yards per catch (14.5) at the position. Meanwhile, Smith is having a down year with just 22 grabs for 200 yards, but he does have the speed to be a dangerous threat from just about anywhere on the field.

With two of their top wide receivers, Jakobi Meyers and DeVante Parker, recovering from injuries this week, expect quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots' offense to lean heavily on the tight ends in the passing game. That could mean some more opportunities for Pola-Mao, even if he is coming off the bench.

Darren Waller/Hunter Renfrow

Baltimore Ravens v Las Vegas Raiders
Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Both Renfrow and Waller were eligible to return from injured reserve last Thursday, however, the short week likely played a factor in the coaches’ decision to keep them on the shelf for one more game. Beyond any sort of matchups, this week is all about getting back on track for those two, assuming one or both are activated.

Partially because they’ve been so banged up, the tight end and wideout just haven’t looked comfortable in McDaniels’ system and thus have struggled to produce. They also need to prove they can play supplementary roles to Davante Adams moving forward, especially after the front office gave both of them hefty contract extensions in the offseason.

Of course, it will take more than one game to prove all of that but it needs to start this week. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if one of them gets dealt in the offseason.