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Raiders Camp 2023: A competitive affair

The competition this offseason will highlight depth or the lack of it for Las Vegas

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NFL: Las Vegas Raiders Press Conference
Robert Spillane is the early odds-on favorite to start at middle linebacker for the Las Vegas Raiders this coming season. The depth behind him is something the team must sort out heading into the 2023 campaign.
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory minicamp is in full effect this week for the Las Vegas Raiders and it provided some intriguing insight to the Silver & Black’s initial plans. Such as third-year linebacker Divine Deablo sporting the green dot on his helmet.

This is an interesting development for the young defender as the dot signifies he’d get the plays from defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and relay them to the entire Raiders defense. Does it mean he’ll be the quarterback of the defense come the regular season?

Not entirely.

Yet it signifies the competition Raiders coaches have blueprinted for the 90-man roster. Deablo along with free agent addition Robert Spillane are the constant first-team/starting combo at linebacker through OTAs and at camp, according to The Athletic’s Tashan Reed, but like with every other position this early into the offseason, there’s a rotation amongst position groups.

“I mean, again, the way the roster has been constructed right now by personnel and our head coach, it’s real competitive,” Graham said after OTAs last week. “And you can see it out there on the field, especially in the spring. There are no starting lineups or anything like that, everybody’s rotating around, and guys are just taking advantage of the opportunities and trying to get better every day.”

Competition is going to be vital for Las Vegas this offseason. Not only will battles for starting gigs potential give the Raiders coaches the best candidates as starters, but it will also highlight the team’s depth or lack of it.

Take the middle linebacker position, one in which Spillane is the odds-on favorite to start. Behind the undrafted free agent (UDFA) and five-year veteran are a pair of young UDFAs in Luke Masterson, Drake Thomas, and Kana’i Mauga. Masterson, a candidate to snag the other outside linebacker spot that Deablo doesn’t outright win, is likely slated for outside duties and earned valuable snaps and experience as a rookie last season. Thomas and Mauga played at the interior linebacker spot in college (North Carolina State and USC, respectively). While Thomas has a tackling-machine nature, as does Mauga, however, the depth at the Mike spot in the linebacker room isn’t solid.

Ditto for the two outside spots. Deablo is likely to start at one spot, Masterson at another. Behind them are 2023 NFL Draft sixth-round pick Amari Burney, and UDFAs Darien Butler and Curtis Bolton. The linebacker room is chalk full of young talent with Spillane and Curtis Bolton the two oldest at 27 years old. But perhaps, the Raiders will deploy more 4-2-5 alignments that only require two linebackers on the field, as opposed to the base 4-3 set which requires a trio — negating the required depth of three starters and backups?

NFL: New England Patriots at Las Vegas Raiders
We’ll find out in due time whether the roster Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler has assembled has both quality starters and depth this season.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, as the Raiders continue with minicamp, OTAs and training camp in July, continued development is imperative. As long as Deablo and Spillane prove durable for 2023, two spots have intriguing starters. It’s if either goes down where things will get very murky.

That can be said of many position groups amongst both the Raiders defense and offense. The spots that have robust amount of players are: Defensive line, cornerback, offensive line, wide receiver, and tight end. Competition is expected to be fierce at each of those spots as not every player will make the final roster or even earn substantial snaps during the regular season — if they don’t impress leading up to cut day.

Graham is optimistic roster depth will sort itself out as the Raiders progress in the offseason.

“The beauty of how the roster is constructed right now from (general manager) Dave (Ziegler), (assistant GM) Champ (Kelly), (director of college scouting) Brandon (Yeargan) helping with the college stuff, and Josh’s vision, it’s competitive at all the spots. I love it,” the defensive boss said. “I mean, we talk about communication, discipline, effort; competition is part of that too, and competition that’s going to bring out the best in all of us. I think it’s evident in the D-line room. It’s evident in all three levels of our defense right now.

“None of the coaches are going to complain about having a lot of good players competing for a spot because you’re going to get the best, and the competition started somewhat during the spring. It’s not the physical part yet, that’ll come with training camp, but I’m pleased with it, please.”

Donning pads is the demarcation line between potential starters and depth pieces. That’ll come and training camp and will serve as the true evaluation period. But, until then, players working in unison and capturing all-important communication and synergy is where its at.

“I like like the way we work. Again, this isn’t necessarily the time for us to stop and evaluate where we’re at,” Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels said after the first mandatory minicamp session on Tuesday. “We have so far to go in terms of progress individually, collectively as a team that we really don’t worry a whole lot about that at this point because again, we’re not in pads. It’s a whole different component to the game that we’re going to get involved with here at the end of July. So, like the way they’re working, love the attitude they bring every day to work. I know we’ve made some progress, how much progress we’ll all find out together eventually.”