In 2021, the Las Vegas Raiders had to rely heavily on their rookie class. Four out of their seven draft picks logged at least six starts including the playoffs, with Alex Leatherwood, Tre’von Moehrig and Nate Hobbs serving as first-stringers for all 18 contests.
This upcoming season should be a little different though as the Raiders only have two rookies listed on the two-deep within their initial depth chart, third-round pick Dylan Parham and undrafted free agent Darien Butler. Those two are currently playing backup roles, so Las Vegas projects to have a much more experienced starting lineup in 2022, but that also means they’ll need a few second-year players to step up into bigger roles.
1) Alex Leatherwood
It’s no secret that the Raiders have a massive need at right tackle. During the offseason, they opted to address other needs until the seventh round of the draft with the selection of Ohio State’s Thayer Munford. While Parham has experience playing tackle, the majority of his reps so far in practice have been at guard or center, and he played all three interior spots in the Hall of Fame game with no snaps on the outside.
So, that leaves Leatherwood in about the same spot he was in at this time last year, the midst of a training camp position battle with Brandon Parker for the team’s opening at right tackle. The first-round pick did win that bout last August, however, the victory was short-lived as he moved to guard and Parker stepped in at tackle by Week 5.
This time around, that same situation probably isn’t an option for Leatherwood. As mentioned above, the Raiders invested in the interior of their line by drafting Parham and Lester Cotton has emerged as a starter early on in camp. That makes it seem like it’s right tackle or bust for Leatherwood, and the team could use him to step up and fill in that role.
Parker has been known to be a liability in pass protection throughout his career, giving up 19 sacks during his two seasons as a starter — 2018 and 2021 — and 23 in total over four years. His preseason debut last week was more of the same with two sacks and one quarterback hit surrendered on just 16 opportunities.
In other words, not only do the Raiders need Leatherwood to step up to help the team, but it might be the only way he’s able to hold down a starting spot just a year after being the team’s top pick.
2) Nate Hobbs
Unlike the other two guys on this list, Hobbs had an excellent rookie campaign.
He finished the regular season as Pro Football Focus’ 10th-highest graded cornerback (79.1) and was the best at the position in the 2021 draft class despite being a fifth-round pick. In slot coverage, he allowed a reception once every 11.2 coverage snaps which was sixth-best among all corners, and his 0.75 yards per coverage snap ranked fourth.
However, the Illinois product’s role might look much different this time around.
With Trayvon Mullen currently on the PUP list after missing the majority of last season with the same injury, Hobbs is expected to get more reps on the outside. That’s where he lined up for eight out of ten snaps last Thursday, and where he took a little more than 85 percent of his reps in college. The problem is he wasn’t exactly effective as a wide corner in Champaign.
In 2020, Hobbs allowed an 87.5 completion percentage and 341 yards in five games while grading out as the 30th-best cornerback (60.3) in the Big 10. His 5.2 coverage snaps per reception allowed was dead last among qualifying CBs in the conference, and he posted a bottom-ten passer rating when targeted at 118.9.
So, showing off more versatility to play on the outside is where Vegas could use their second-year corner to grow, adding some flexibility to what could be a thin position group.
3) Tyree Gillespie
Injuries plagued Gillesepie’s rookie season and hampered his growth. He got a late start to training camp with what the team called a ‘mild soft tissue’ injury, per Tashan Reed of The Athletic, and was placed on injured reserve a few months later with a bum hamstring.
The fourth-round pick was able to return to the field during Week 16, but he was limited to just 13 snaps throughout the regular- and post-season, missing a total of eight games in 2021. In a sense, just staying healthy would be an improvement but the Raiders could use even more than that from him.
New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is known for deploying versatile safeties in his defense, sometimes putting three on the field at once. That should be a great scheme for Gillespie, who spent a significant amount of time in college as a free safety, in the box and covering the slot.
Plus, outside of Moehrig, the Raiders’ safety situation is very fluid. Johnathan Abram has proven to be a bit of a wild card in coverage and is best in a strong safety-only type of role, and Roderic Teamer is in a similar boat. While Duron Harmon is more versatile than those two, he’s primarily lined up deep and is coming off arguably the worst year of his career at 31 years old.
That leaves a great opportunity for Gillespie to not only carve out a role for this season but also for a few years to come as the other three are all set to hit free agency next offseason.