Training camp later this month will serve as the demarcation line for the Las Vegas Raiders roster. The divide between hopefuls and mainstays will be set as the Silver & Black embark on practices and preseason tilts en route to the 2022 campaign.
In some cases, the line will be clear and distinct. In others, it’ll be blurred and the Raiders personnel crew will be forced to make tough decisions. That’ll be a good thing if it happens. Having a grueling decision on who to keep and who to cut means there’s talent on the roster. And that’s the name of the game for the general manager Davie Zielger and head coach Josh McDaniels.
To get there, the Raiders brain trust has preached competition from the get-go. Players will earn their spots and the fight for a place on the roster will result in everyone pushing each other to be their best. The emphasis on competition may open the door for Raiders’ hopefuls.
Let’s take a look at a group of under-the-radar types that may go from longshot to Raiders (whether that’s the 53-man roster or practice squad):
Alex Bars, OL. The 6-foot-5, 334-pound 26-year-old offensive lineman offers the position versatility both McDaniels and offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo seek. Bars was signed to a one-year, $1.7 million deal in free agency and comes from the Chicago Bears. The Notre Dame product got snaps at guard, center and tackle during his time in Chicago with 11 starts in 2020 and 2021. He appeared in 16 and 17 games those two seasons. Bars showcases good anchor against power rushers and is hard to move. That along with his experience at multiple positions and starting experience should keep Bars in the thick of competition as a solid depth piece.
Darien Butler, LB. At 5-foot-10 and 221 pounds, the Arizona State product isn’t the biggest linebacker on the block, but he’s a tenacious spark plug of a defender who can grow into a role as he starts off as a hair-on-fire special teamer. With the Raiders rebuilding their special teams cover units from the ground up, Butler’s path should start with becoming an impact special teamer. The undrafted free agent trimmed down his senior year and it helped him play quicker with more explosion and that should translate well to the cover group. The depth at linebacker is also unsettled and if Butler can show he has the ability to cover at the NFL level, he’s got a strong chance to stick.
Chase Garbers, QB. McDaniels loves having a developmental type quarterback in his system for years and Garbers fits the bill. The Cal product and undrafted free agent impressed the head coach with his desire to soak everything up and learn. While Garbers has a long way to becoming an NFL quarterback — limited arm strength is chief among the concerns — he does have the willingness and smarts. Playing within himself and a scheme tailored to his skillset would do Garbers wonders and being in a farm system with McDaniels isn’t a bad way to start an NFL career.
Justin Hall, WR. A bit of an enigma, the 5-foot-9, 186-pound wide out doesn’t have eye-popping straight-line speed, but when he has the ball in his hands, he’ll blow by defenders who are caught flat footed. He’s more elusive and much quicker when given the ball than without. Which makes Hall an intriguing option as a return man or as a quick pass option on screens and hitches. The Raiders do lack an explosive presence at wide receiver and the Ball State product could fill that role as well as a kick or punt returner.
Tyron Johnson, WR. Talk about straight-line speed, Johnson has that in spades. Vegas doesn’t have an identified deep-speed burner at receiver and Johnson may be it by default. He can separate from defenders, take the lid off the top of defenses, and has the ability to track the ball down and haul it in. Johnson didn’t get much play as a wide receiver last year (zero targets in five games played) so he has a decent shot at impressing the new staff. If nothing else, his speed makes him an appealing special teamer.
Isaiah Pola-Mao, S. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound undrafted free agent offers intriguing size at the safety position with decent speed (4.56 40-yard dash time). He was the USC Trojans starting safety last season and is a fierce and effective presence in the box. The Raiders safety depth is murky and Pola-Mao has a shot at carving out a role as a reserve at the position. But his size and speed could make him an imposing special teams presence much like how veteran wide receiver Mack Hollins (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) has become.