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5 most important position battles during training camp

Contenders, wild cards and predictions for each

Seattle Seahawks v Las Vegas Raiders
Alex Leatherwood
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The day has finally come and the 2022 Las Vegas Raiders season is here!

Rookies reported to training camp on Monday and veterans checked in today which means we just cleared one checkpoint to the start of the regular season. This also means the position battles are about to commence so we’ll finally get some answers to our offseason questions. Below is a look at the Raiders' five most important competitions with the biggest contenders for each, a potential wild card winner and a prediction for who wins the Week 1 job.

1) Right Tackle

Las Vegas Raiders v Cleveland Browns
Brandon Parker
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Contenders: Alex Leatherwood, Brandon Parker and Thayer Munford

Arguably the biggest surprise from the Raiders this offseason was that they didn’t address the right tackle spot until the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Munford took about 150 snaps at right tackle as a true freshman before moving over to the blind side for the next three years. He allowed just five sacks — all of which came in one year — on over 1,200 pass-blocking snaps holding down the edge at Ohio State, but he’s the third horse in the race this season.

That leaves the two holdovers from a year ago, Leatherwood and Parker, who many thought wouldn’t be competing with each other for the second year in a row.

Both guys were liabilities in pass protection as they combined to allow 72 pressure at right tackle in 2021. To their credit, they also showed glimmers of hope as run blockers, with Parker putting together two elite PFF run blocking grade performances and two outings in the 70s, and Leatherwood posted three games in the 70s. However, that’s still not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Leatherwood’s position flexibility could also be a factor here as Las Vegas could run it back with him at guard and Parker at tackle, but that would start to feel like the definition of insanity.

Prediction: Leatherwood wins

The biggest thing Parker has had going for him is that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. That’s how he got the job as a rookie and last season, and he was re-signed well into free agency after the market dried up this offseason. Leatherwood at least has youth and athleticism on his side to hope that he’ll eventually figure it out in pass protection.

Wild Card: Jermaine Eluemunor

In 2020, Eluemunor played six games and 271 snaps at right tackle for the Patriots and Josh McDaniels, and he allowed just five pressures and earned a 78.8 run blocking grade. He only lined up at guard for Jon Gruden but that could change this time around in camp.

2) Interior Offensive Line

New Orleans Saints v Las Vegas Raiders
John Simpson, Andre James
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Contenders: John Simpson (LG, RG), Dylan Parham, (LG, C, RG), Andre James (C), Denzelle Good (RG, LG), Jermaine Eluemunor (RG, LG)

McDaniels and Dave Ziegler kind of threw a wrench into the outlook of the Raiders' offensive line by using their first pick of the draft on Parham. Many people, myself included, expected them to target a tackle to solve the issue above but instead, they took an interior offensive lineman who they’re having taking reps at center and both guard spots.

The Memphis product did play three different positions in four seasons as a Tiger, never earning an overall PFF grade below 70, so versatility is one of his strengths. It would just be a matter of how quickly he can pick up center, which he took reps at during the Senior Bowl.

That brings us to James, who started to find his grove during the second half of last season as PFF’s seventh-highest graded center (76.7) from Weeks 7 to 18. Because of that, his spot likely isn’t up for grabs like the two spots beside him are, per se, but that door does seem to be at least cracked if not open.

Simpson returns in a similar situation as James, albeit not to quite the same extent. The former was able to steady the ship in pass protection, ranking 17th among guards with a 76.0 pass-blocking grade and just 14 pressures surrendered from Weeks 11 to 18. However, his run blocking was still a struggle with a 44.8 grade during that timeframe and a 45.9 mark throughout the year, creating an opportunity for someone else to step in.

Good and Eluemunor are the wily veterans of the bunch and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them start at guard and the other serve as the sixth offensive lineman. However, Good needs to prove he’s healthy enough after tearing an ACL in Week 1 of last season while Eluemunor looks to shake off last season, where he was benched after four games.

Prediction: Simpson (LG), James (C), Good (RG)

McDaniels liked to run a lot of gap runs in New England and that system should help improve Simpson’s run blocking performance as he’s always been a better fit in that scheme. I think the Raiders have other problems to fix upfront before they start trying to upgrade from James, who showed tremendous growth in 2021, and Good’s status as a veteran should earn him the nod at least early on.

Wild Card: Lester Cotton starts at guard

Cotton has been with the organization for a while but has failed to make the 53-man roster at the end of training camp three times, and it feels like he’s at a pivotal point in his career where it’s either going to happen or it isn’t. Granted, he doesn’t need to become a starter for that to happen, but who knows, maybe a motivated offseason and a few dominos falling into place might make it happen.

3) Starting Cornerbacks

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
Rock Ya-Sin

Contenders: Trayvon Mullen, Rock Ya-Sin, Anthony Averett

This might not end up being much of a battle as Mullen was placed on PUP yesterday.

The four-year pro battled injuries last year and hasn’t shown the same promise that he did as a rookie. In year one, he allowed 41 completions on 70 targets — 58.6 percent — for 491 yards, but those figures rose to 54 on 85 — 63.5 percent —- for 661 in year two. He was on pace to decline even further last season with a 68.2 completion percentage and 43 yards allowed per game.

So, between his health and sub-par performances, Mullen’s spot is certainly up for grabs.

Ya-Sin should be able to hold down a starting spot if Mullen can’t go in Week 1. The former Colt was one of the best corners in man coverage last season, ranking fifth in PFF coverage grade (79.4) and third in receptions allowed per snap in man (25.5). That should be good enough to make him the team’s CB1 heading into Day 1.

Then there’s Averett, who stepped up for the Baltimore Ravens when their corners went down last year and ranked inside the top 10 at the position with 12 forced incompletions. He also allowed just a 55.9 completion percentage when targeted and a 79.1 passer rating, so he’s more than capable of filling in as the second cornerback.

Prediction: Ya-Sin and Averett start Week 1

With a new coaching staff and system, not being on the field and taking reps is huge and who knows if Mullen is even going to be 100 percent when he comes back. There’s too much uncertainty with the 2020 second-round pick for me to feel comfortable slating him as a starter right now.

Wild card: Nate Hobbs moves outside

Another offseason rumor is that Hobbs might start taking some reps at outside corner, where he played in college. Granted, part of the reason why he slid in the draft was that he struggled out there — 87.5 completion percent allowed as a senior — and he might be better suited at nickel after putting together a strong rookie campaign. But, the Raiders' secondary is thin and they might need him to step up.

4) Starting Defensive Tackles

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Hankins
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders: Bilal Nichols, Johnathan Hankins, Neil Farrell Jr., Matthew Butler, Vernon Butler, Kyle Peko

Much the cornerbacks, Vegas’ defensive tackle situation got a little more complicated on Tuesday with Nichols and Hankins both going on PUP. The former likely has a starting spot once he gets healthy, but the door is open for Matthew Butler to shine while the veteran is on the sidelines.

As for Hankins, he might not be so lucky when he returns.

The nine-year pro saw a significant decrease in production last year, recording his fewest stops (14) as a Raider and his second-fewest pressures (eight) with the club. He also saw an over 20-point drop in his run defense grade from 2020 to 2021, and regressing while also being injured is a tough combination to overcome, especially with a young buck lurking.

Farrell Jr. has the skill set to replace Hankins. He’s strong enough to hold up at the point of attack and two-gap and it doesn’t hurt that he led SEC defensive tackles with 24 run stops a year ago. The LSU product also offers upside as a pass rusher, something Hankins no longer has at this point in his career.

While Vernon Butler and Peko are both options for the coaching staff, both are vets who have struggled to win starting jobs at their previous stops so it’s hard to imagine they’ll have much luck in the desert. Also, both offer very little in the pass rush department.

Prediction: Nichols and Farrell Jr. start

As mentioned above, health should be the only thing standing in Nichols’ way so if he’s ready to go by Week 1, I expect him to be running with the ones. To me, Farrell offers the defense the best combination being of a run stuffer in the middle with the potential to produce some production as a rusher. This would also be a great way to give a young player some experience for the future.

Wildcard: Andrew Billings starts at nose tackle

Billings hasn’t started since 2019 and barely saw the field for Cleveland last season, but he could be a decent space-eater to replace or be the holdover for Hankins. The former Brown is certainly a long shot but the opportunity is there for the taking.

5) No. 3 Wide Receiver

NFL: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
Keelan Cole
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders: Keelan Cole, Mack Hollins, Demarcus Robinson, Tyron Johnson

The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller are still the team’s top three targets, but the Raiders do have an opening for the third wide receiver spot on their depth chart.

Cole should enter camp as the favorite as he has the best combination of speed and yards-after-catch skills. In his five NFL seasons, he’s collected 794 YAC with an average depth of target of 12.1 yards, while dealing with the Jets and Jaguars quarterback situations.

Then there’s Hollins, who has found success in contested catch situations with six grabs on 11 contested targets in the last two years. He was also named as a top 25 red zone target recently and had three touchdowns on four catchable targets in that area of the field a year ago.

After struggling to find consistency with the Chiefs for six years, Robinson hopes to have better luck with a division rival. The problem is he doesn’t seem to have a niche to stand out and is coming off his least-productive campaign since 2017 with 25 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns in 2021.

Johnson is the speedster who it felt like was underutilized last season. After signing with the Silver and Black later in the year, he barely saw the field on offense and was never targeted. However, he did manage to have 19.9 yards per reception and three touchdowns with the Chargers back in 2020.

Prediction: Cole wins the job

I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson ends up stepping up and taking over as the third wideout with the speed that he brings to the table, but ultimately, Cole is the closest to being a well-rounded receiver out of anyone in this group. He’ll be hard to beat out.

Wild card: Justin Hall emerges as WR3

Hall was a YAC monster at Ball State, racking up over 2,250 YAC in five seasons and averaging 7.2 YAC per reception. He doesn’t have the track record as a deep threat — 6.1 career ADOT — but that figure is also weighed down by the team’s quarterback situation and the undrafted free agent could turn some heads during the preseason.