The preseason is always an interesting time for the Las Vegas Raiders and the rest of the NFL because the starters aren’t the stars. Instead, guys like Derek Carr, Davante Adams and Darren Waller step aside and give the spotlight to the rookies, undrafted free agents and other young players who are fighting for a roster spot.
While every UDFA and player on the roster bubble are all working hard to compete to stay on the team, sometimes an injury to someone ahead of them on the depth chart or other circumstances can be the biggest determining factor. The Raiders know this first-hand as they've had a few players suffer season-ending injuries already in training camp.
So, taking all of this into consideration, which of Las Vegas’ UDFAs have the best chance at making the 53-man roster at the end of the month?
1) Darien Butler
Speaking of injuries, Butler moved up a spot on the depth chart last week when Micah Kiser was placed on injured reserve. Butler took advantage of the extra reps by leading the Raiders in tackles during the Hall of Fame game with six in total. He also put together a couple of quality pass rush reps with two pressures on just three attempts.
It helps that the Arizona State product has some familiarity with the coaching staff, having played for linebackers coach Antonio Pierce for the last four years. Pierce even spoke highly of Butler during minicamp, saying: “[Butler is] eager to play, eager to learn, take every rep that he can possibly [take] mentally and physically, giving himself a chance to hopefully make this team.”
The former Sun Devil will have to clean up his tackling though. He missed 20 tackles for a 24.1 percent missed tackle rate in Tempe last season, and he had three whiffs at a 37.5 percent clip last Thursday.
Standing out on special teams could help his cause as that’s where he could have a leg up on his biggest competitor, Kenny Young, who didn’t take any reps as a specialist with the Ravens last season. Meanwhile, Butler participated on the punt coverage and return teams for ASU in 2021.
2) Bryce Cosby
Cosby was a tackle machine last year at Ball State. He racked up 108 total tackles, 11.5 for loss, and notched 36 defensive stops which were tied for the fourth-most among all FBS safeties. Perhaps even more impressively, he only missed nine tackles at an eight percent rate, the third-lowest rate among safeties with more than 65 solo tackles.
The former Cardinal is now listed as a cornerback on the Raiders’ depth chart and covered the slot on 39 out of 40 snaps against the Jaguars last week. His performance was up and down, giving up two catches for 30 yards on four targets with a pass breakup thrown in the mix, but showing off that versatility is what could land him a spot on the roster.
Patrick Graham loves to use a lot of two- and three-safety sets to help disguise coverages, meaning the swiss army knife type of players thrive in his system. Defensive backs can be playing the center field role, covering the slot or in the box on just about any play. In college, Cosby lined up at free safety 1,247 times, over the slot for 1,407 reps and took 1,109 snaps in the box. That’s exactly what Graham is looking for and Vegas’ defensive backfield is wide open right now, a great situation for an undrafted free agent.
3) Justin Hall
How about back-to-back Ball State alums?
Hall was a YAC machine in Muncie averaging 7.2 YAC per reception and totaling 2,283 yards after the catch in five years. In 2020, he ranked fifth among all FBS wideouts with 506 YAC and 15th with a 10.3-yard average. Those figures dipped down to 386 and 6.3 last season, but he was still lethal with the ball in his hands.
Outside of Adams and Hunter Renfrow, no wide receiver on Las Vegas’ roster is safe as there are open competitions for the final three or four spots within the position group. Hall can separate himself with not only his ability to make plays after the catch but also with his kick return skills.
A year ago, he had 11 kick returns for 382 yards, which came out to an average of 34.7 yards per clip and ranked tied for second in the country. He wasn’t quite as impressive on punt returns with 11 attempts for 123 yards for an 11.2 yards per return average that was 17th-best, but that’s still a solid performance nonetheless.
The Raiders have struggled in the return game for a few years, often forcing them to use Renfrow which is less than ideal given that he’s a key contributor on offense. So Hall’s ability to fill a receiver spot and take the burden of the return responsibilities should give him an excellent shot at sticking around for the fall.
4) Zach VanValkenburg
Another guy who benefits from someone else’s peril. Kyler Fackrell was expected to be the Raiders’ third or fourth edge rusher when he signed as a free agent, however, he was placed on injured reserve shortly after training camp started. Malcolm Koonce seems primed to take over as the first pass rusher off the bench, but that fourth spot is wide open.
In college, VanValkenburg was a late bloomer who started his career at Division II Hillsdale College before transferring to Iowa. He broke through as a pass rusher last season with 5.5 sacks and 37 pressures as the latter ranked tied for eighth among Big Ten edge rushers. But it was his work against the run that really stood out.
The former Hawkeye had the second-highest run defense grade from Pro Football Focus (87.6) at his position in the conference, trailing only Aidan Hutchinson. VanValkenburg was the top dog in the Big Ten with 34 run stops and finished in second across the entire FBS for that category.
With Clelin Ferrell missing time at the beginning of camp and likely not being a great fit as an edge in Graham’s defense, the opportunity for the undrafted rookie to make the roster is certainly there.
5) Bamidele Olaseni
It’s no secret that the Raiders starting right tackle spot is up for grabs. Every offensive lineman on the roster from former first-round pick Alex Leatherwood to undrafted free agent Bamidele Olaseni conceivably has a chance to win the job.
Granted, those odds are slim and it’s unlikely that Olaseni will win a starting role in camp, but the uncertainty at the top of the depth chart could leave a backup role open as well.
Growing up in England and transferring to Utah from a junior college, he’s only faced high-level competition for one season but it was an impressive campaign. Last year, the former Ute didn’t allow a single sack and only gave up 13 pressures for an efficiency rating of 98.3. The latter was tied for fourth among Pac 12 tackles with Sean Rhyan, Green Bay Packers third-round pick, and behind Kellen Diesch, Miami Dolphins UDFA, and Abraham Lucas, Seattle Seahawks third-round pick.
Olaseni was also a standout run blocker with the eighth-best run blocking grade (79.7) at his position in the conference. He also possesses some great physical gifts with an 88 3/8” wingspan that is the longest in the NFL.
So, while he may need some technical refinement, the Brit may have found a perfect opportunity to grow while still being on the 53-man roster.