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Raiders Outlook 2022: Keelan Cole’s opportunity to catch on

Wide receiver can claim not only snaps but potentially starting role for Las Vegas

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Jets
Keelan Cole, signed as a free agent from the New York Jets, has the opportunity to snare not only snaps, but potentially a starting role as an outside wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Keelan Cole’s mid-March arrival in the desert via free agency was a curious one, to say the least. At that point, the Las Vegas Raiders boasted a glut of wide receivers that included free agent additions Mack Hollins and Demarcus Robinson and included the big-time trade for Davante Adams.

Two months after Cole’s arrival, the pecking order at wide out, numbers wise at least, began to become clear. The Raiders shipped off Bryan Edwards — a third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft — to the Atlanta Falcons, along with a 2023 seventh-round pick, to get a 2023 fifth-round pick back.

Cole, a productive depth receiver during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, finds himself in the mix for not only snaps, but potentially a starting role as an outside wide receiver opposite Adams. He was in a rotation in OTAs with Hollins, Robinson, and Tyron Johnson on the outside across from Adams and that same pattern is holding as the Raiders continue through mandatory minicamp.

Don’t be surprised if Las Vegas continues to rotate receivers on the outside and take the hot-hand approach as Adams and Hunter Renfrow are entrenched at the other perimeter spot and in the slot, respectively.

Cole’s Outlook

Cole did spend a good portion of two seasons in both Jacksonville and New York operating inside at the slot. While variations may occur this year, that particular wide receiver spot belongs to Renfrow. Cole, however, is no stranger operating on the boundaries. He’s comfortable both inside and outside of formations and offers the ever-sought versatility head coach Josh McDaniels seeks from his Raiders.

Cole has the ability to track the ball in flight well, adjust and make the grab. That served him well during his time with Jacksonville and New York where ball placement and accuracy from his quarterback’s came at a premium. During his tenure with the Jaguars, the high-water mark for accuracy amongst the signal callers Cole played with was 66.1 percent (Gardner Minshew). Quarterback completion percentage in Jacksonville hovered in the low 60s for much of his time there. In New York, Cole spent most of his time catching the rock from rookie Zach Wilson (an understandable 55.6 completion percentage).

In Las Vegas, Cole joins a receiving corps that hauls in passes from Derek Carr, an accurate quarterback that’s seen completion percentages of 70.4, 67.3, and 68.4 percent the last three seasons.

While not the burner that Johnson is — Cole, Hollins and even Robinson can’t match Johnson’s 4.36 40-yard dash time — Cole shows he’s more slippery than his 4.59 timed speed (at Kentucky Wesleyan’s pro day) shows. The 6-foot-1, 194-pound undrafted free agent displays an aptitude to break away from defenders while both running routes and with the ball in his hands.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers
Despite his timed 40-yard dash time of 4.59 during his pro day, Keelan Cole has shown the ability to break away from defenders.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Cole offers plenty as a route runner and blocker, too. The ability to cleanly make cuts and get in and out of breaks serves him well against both man and zone matchups and he’s gotten defensive backs to bite on double moves. While he may look sleight of frame, Cole is willing to put his body on the line as both run blocker and downfield blocker when a teammate catches the ball. His hands did go through issues in 2018 and 2020 when he dropped seven and six passes, respectively.

If Cole continues to sharpen his route running and separation skills, he could carve out snaps amongst the group vying for playing time at the outside spot. While he profiles similar to Robinson, neither of them can match the sheer size Hollins offers at 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds. And that trio can’t beat Johnson in a foot race, however, Cole has the most catches and yards career-wise out of that group. (Smart thing for any Raiders wide receiver to do is pick the brain of both Adams and Renfrow as often as then can).

And, perhaps the sticking point regarding the group Cole, Hollins, Robinson and Johnson have that Edwards did not offer was this: They can all play special teams. Edwards had a total of six snaps on special teams in his first two years in the league. Hollins (764 career snaps), Robinson (571), Cole (395) and Johnson (65) offer versatility.

Money-wise, the 29-year-old Cole did sign a one-year $1.267-million-plus deal so the financial ramifications of him both working out or not working out isn’t dire.

Cole’s Career Breakdown

Cole burst onto the scenes with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017 as a 24-year-old rookie. Hauling in 42 of his 83 targets, Cole racked up 748 yards and three touchdowns to go along with a robust 17.8 yards per reception average. He had a career-long 75-yard grab in his debut season.

That was his high-water mark in terms of yardage during his four-season stint in Jacksonville (a 55-catch, 642-yard, five-touchdown 2020 was his second best season as a Jaguar). He signed with and played for the New York Jets in 2021 snaring 28 passes for 449 yards (16 yards per catch average) with one touchdown.

For his career, Cole sports a stat line of: 187 receptions, 2,691 yards, 13 touchdowns and a 57.2 percent catch rate.

Cole offers return-man ability to holding career numbers of 10 punt returns for 143 yards and a touchdown and 15 kick returns for 353 yards.