Now that the 2023 NFL Draft is over and the Las Vegas Raiders have already signed several undrafted free agents, the team’s roster is starting to take shape. At the time of writing, the Raiders have 92 players under contract, so they'll have to get rid of two guys to get down to the allotted 90-man roster for training camp.
After those couple of cuts, the race for the 53-man roster is officially underway between the veterans on the bubble, late-round picks and the UDFAs. Every year there’s at least one rookie who slipped through the cracks of the draft but battles his way onto the roster, so below is a look a the top five candidates to make the squad at the end of training camp.
1) Drake Thomas, LB, NC State
Drake Thomas caught my eye during this year’s Shrine Bowl and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where he grabbed Josh McDaniels’ and Dave Ziegler’s attention too as the event was in Las Vegas and both were present during the practices.
While he lacks size at just 5’11” and 223 pounds, Thomas isn’t afraid to come downhill and stick somebody in the running game. In fact, he was Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest graded linebacker against the run (90.7) last season and ranked tied for fourth among ACC backers with an 11.5 percent run stop rate.
The NC State product also showed some decent athleticism and was effective in zone coverage in Las Vegas. However, he did struggle in man, especially against tight ends where his physical limitations come into play.
Who he’s competing against: Darien Butler, Luke Masterson, Curtis Bolton, Amari Burney and Kana’i Mauga
This is a big reason why I think Thomas has a good chance of making the roster. Linebacker is a wide-open position for the Silver and Black as it was a big need heading into the draft, but they didn’t take one until the sixth round. It’s a long shot, but there’s a chance that Thomas ends up as the team’s third backer with a really good camp.
2) McClendon Curtis, OL, UT Chattanooga
FCS products are typically a good bet to make the roster as a UDFA because a lot of the time the level of competition they faced in college was a big reason why they went undrafted. Then they get into training camp and prove themselves to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, and that’s exactly what McClendon Curtis can do.
Curtis received a draftable grade from Bleacher Report’s draft scout Brandon Thorn, and he brings some position versatility. During his first three seasons at UT Chattanooga, he primarily lined up at right guard but switched to left tackle this past season. He even played a little bit of both in 2022, proving that he’s capable of flipping back and forth between positions.
That combined with allowing just 12 pressures and PFF run-blocking grades in the 80s over the last two years, gives the former Moc an impressive resume to make the Raiders’ final roster.
Who he’s competing against: Alex Bars, Jordan Meredith, Netane Muti and Vitaliy Gurman
Las Vegas is undoubtedly weak at guard as Bars is currently slated to be the starter, but he was pretty bad last year and shouldn’t have a roster spot locked up heading into camp. Muti and Meredith both only played in one game a year ago and Gurman didn’t participate in any. So none of the players Curtis will be competing with have a good track record of success.
3) Dalton Wagner, OT, Arkansas
Staying in the trenches, Dalton Wagner is a pure offensive tackle who has great size at 6’8” and 320 pounds with 34 3/8” arms, which, according to NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein, shows up in his ability to keep pass-rushers away from the quarterback.
Wagner has rare size and length at the tackle position, with much better play strength than we typically see from tackles of his height. He uses his long arms to punch with independent hands, using well-timed strikes to keep rushers out of rhythm. A lack of foot agility leaves him susceptible to inside moves and counters both as a pass protector and run blocker. His overall ability in pass pro plays to his favor, but the run blocking is subpar. Wagner is a right tackle-only prospect but pass protection is very valuable in the league, which gives him a chance to make a roster.
Zierlein’s note about Wagner’s athleticism was reinforced by his testing numbers as he recorded an ugly 4.40 RAS Score, and that’s with him getting a boost from his size. However, he did have decent production as a pass protector in college, allowing 31 pressures on 669 pass-blocking snaps over the past two seasons combined.
Who he’s competing against: Brandon Parker, Thayer Munford, Justin Herron and Justin Murray
Unlike the first two players on this list, Wagner faces some stiff competition as Munford has more position versatility, and Parker and Herron both have starting experience. However, if the Razorback has a good camp, he could take Parker’s spot seeing as the veteran doesn’t have a good track record despite getting playing time.
4) Jaydon Grant, DB, Oregon State
Safety is another position that’s wide-open for the Raiders, especially since they didn’t draft one until the fifth round last weekend. That’s good news for Jaydon Grant, who has the versatility defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is looking for at the position.
Grant lined up all over the place at Oregon State. In 2021, he was primarily a slot corner, taking 491 defensive snaps there, 140 in the box and 130 at free safety. He lined up deep more frequently this past season with 358 snaps at free safety, 220 over the slot and 151 in the box, per PFF. So the Beaver can pretty much play anywhere in the defensive backfield.
However, Grant’s biggest issue is he’s small and slow, measuring in just below six feet and 190 pounds while running a 4.73-second 40-yard dash time. Also, it took a while for him to really stand out in Corvallis as this past season—his sixth year—was the only season where he recorded a PFF grade above 70.
Who he’s competing against: Jaquan Johnson, Christopher Smith II, Roderic Teamer, Isaiah Pola-Moa and Azizi Hearn
Grant’s versatility is going to be his biggest competitive advantage to make the roster as the majority of players listed above fit into one category or another as either a box or deep safety. If he can prove to be strong enough to play on the second level and fast enough for the third level, then Graham might have to keep the Oregon State product around. Special teams will also play a factor, which he does have experience playing in college.
5) Azizi Hearn, DB, UCLA
At Azizi Hearn’s first two schools—Arizona and Wyoming—he was primarily an outside corner who never took more than 100 snaps in a season from any other alignment. However, he transferred again this past season and expanded his repertoire with over 200 snaps covering the slot and over 100 in the box.
That gives Hearn more position versatility and could help him take on more of a nickel role in the NFL as Zierlein noted below.
As a cornerback, Hearn does not offer the ball skills or anticipation necessary to handle zone or man duties in the NFL. However, as a safety, his size and athletic testing could create some interest from teams looking for him to make that position change. He’s a wrap-up tackler and does a nice job of taking on blocks. Hearn might be worth a peek for teams interested in developing him into a big nickel back or box safety.
The testing numbers Zierlein references were highlighted by the Bruin’s 4.48 40-time, 37.5-inch vertical and 10’7” broad jump, which helped him earn a 9.31 RAS Score. That plus the fact he only missed tackles on 6.6 percent of his opportunities in college makes him a good candidate to play the roles Zierlein suggests.
Who he’s competing against: Roderic Teamer, Isaiah Pola-Moa and Jaydon Grant
This will be a position battle that pits two UDFAs against each other. There is a world where both make the team as Grant can be a free safety and Hearn can play in the box, however, it’s more likely that only one of the two make the cut. I’d imagine the coaching staff would want to keep one or two of the veterans around as well, heightening the stakes of the duel between the Pac-12 rookies.