DJ Turner’s 35-yard catch and run touchdown for the Las Vegas Raiders against the Minnesota Vikings was scintillating wasn’t it? The play highlights why the undrafted free agent wide receiver made the Silver & Black’s initial 53-man roster. It was a blend of hands, elusiveness and vision from Turner.
Watching that play closely, however, there was someone else that stood out on that play. As Turner rounded the corner and approached the 15-yard line, there was No. 80 providing a seal block that allowed the wideout to gallop into the end zone untouched. That timely blocker was Jesper Horsted. That one play, as non-descript as it could be with all eyes on Turner, exhibits the attention to detail, the football awareness Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels seek from everyone on the roster — from the 53 to practice squad.
To be a new-era Raider, you must be both football intelligent and disciplined. And Horsted is one of the newcomers who caught on quick. Signed as an unrestricted free agent back in early June, the collegiate wide receiver-turned-pro tight end appeared to be mere camp cannon fodder especially since the Raiders Las Vegas had five tight ends already on the roster. But as training camp progressed, Horsted’s ability to catch the rock and improved blocking were hard to ignore. Especially when the exhibition tilts came around. The 6-foot-3 and 237-pound 25-year-old displayed his wares in preseason and when it came time to whittle the roster to the league-mandated 53-man limit, the Princeton product made the cut.
“Look, they’ve earned it, so I think it’s gratifying for them. I think the coaches have done a good job of trying to develop each one of their players in their room and you’re happy for them. I mean, that’s one of the best things about our job, when you see one of the players have success,” McDaniels noted off the longshots who made the Raiders roster. “There’s nothing more important than that. We work hard to try to give them an opportunity to succeed in their roles, whatever those roles might be, and when they have success, we’re all happy for them. I know the team is. And again I can’t overstate this, but we have to continue to push and try to compete and get better. It’s a tough league, and you can’t relax, you can’t rest on your laurels, you can’t feel like it’s over.
“You have to keep competing and keep getting better. That’s why we think a big part of improvement is competition. So the competition doesn’t end yesterday or today. It might be a little different because we don’t have as many guys, but they’re still going to be competing for roles.”
The competition in the tight end room in Las Vegas always came down to the backup roles. Darren Waller is the unquestioned TE1 who offers freakish talents that no other person in the position group can deliver. Even Foster Moreau, the direct backup to Waller, wasn’t a phased-type as his pot is cemented. So there was Horsted duking it out with Jacob Hollister, Nick Bowers and Cole Fotheringham.
The initial favorite for TE3 duties was Hollister. Out of the group, he had the most starting experience and production to go along with his history with the New England Patriots and, in turn, McDaniels who served as the Pats offensive coordinator. But Hollister ended up getting hurt late in training camp (he landed on injured reserve when the 53-man roster became settled) and Horsted surged past the group with his availability and production.
The role Horsted is slated to see his in 2022 may be a special teams mainstay. The third tight end of the group tends to stray that way, even on teams that trot out three tight end sets. Reference the most recent Raider TE3, Derek Carrier. Yes, different offense and all that jazz, but DC85 logged 77, 80, 79 and 73 percent of the special teams snaps in his last four years in Silver & Black.
Can he offer more? That’ll be up to Horsted. His collegiate production at Princeton was ungodly: School record 196 receptions for 2,703 yards and 28 touchdowns in 35-career games. He was the big receiver that ran 40-yard dashes from the low 4.5s to 4.70. All that was enticing enough for the Chicago Bears to sign him as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and move him to tight end.
The hands still remain, however. The route running is getting better. He’s progressively gotten bigger to handle trench work. Like Moreau, Horsted can get behind a defense if not taken seriously and can both move the chains or take it to the house.