Luke Masterson embodies how an undrafted free agent ideally makes an NFL roster — by being a standout on special teams.
The Wake Forest product made the Las Vegas Raiders 53-man roster last season for his willingness to work and effectiveness in that unit and, by both impressing the coaches in practices and taking advantage of injuries decimating the Silver & Black linebackers corps, earned defensive snaps.
For the Raiders final four games, Masterson played more on defense than he did on special teams showcasing the pro level isn’t too big for him and now, the second-year linebacker has a solid opportunity to win a starting spot.
The 6-foot-1, 234-pound 25-year-old is one of the top three linebackers in Las Vegas this offseason alongside presumptive starters Divine Deablo (outside) and Robert Spillane (middle). Masterson is cut from the hard-nosed cloth of defender that doesn’t have eye-popping athleticism but gets the most out of what he’s given and combining it with quick reaction skills. This proved quite handy for Masterson as a run defender as he read the play well and arrived to make stops.
In total last season, Masterson started seven games — while playing in all 17 — and made 59 total tackles (30 solo) with four stops for loss and one quarterback hit. He’s a blue-collar type linebacker who will do what is asked and attempt to execute at the best of his ability. That’s the kind of attitude the Raiders coaching staff finds both appealing and endearing.
“Once you exhaust everything that you do throughout the week, once you know in your heart you’ve done everything you can to prepare and you’ve put in all the work — there’s really not much else to do than go play loose and have some fun,” Masterson told Raiders official website. “That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned and I’ve tried to take in going into year two – there’s no substitute for hard work throughout the week. You’ve got to put in the time, you got to put in the film. But once it comes time to play, you got to have fun and enjoy it because at the end of the day, it’s still a game. Go enjoy it.”
Combing with Spillane and Deablo, the Raiders have three linebackers who are willing tacklers who aren’t afraid to mix it up and attack the line of scrimmage. Masterson needs to refine his form tackling ability and wrap up skills as he didn’t fare to well in that department according to Pro Football Focus. The group charted him with a 17.5 percent miss tackle rate.
But let’s also be real here: The Raiders linebacker depth isn’t ideal. The team allowed tackling machine and oft-injured Denzel Perryman to walk and added only Spillane while drafting Amari Burney (Florida) in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Hence why Deablo, Spillane and Masterson are the odds-on favorites to start in the base 4-3 alignment.
What the trio need to prove, however, is they can hold up much better in coverage. Masterson was targeted 15 times last season, according to Pro Football Focus and allowed 14 receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns. The yards allowed per completion is relatively low at 8.9 per catch, however, the 93.3 percent completion rate and the 141.0 rating quarterbacks sported throwing at Masterson isn’t ideal.
Deablo has the size, speed, and athleticism skillset that makes him ideally better suited in coverage — he’s a safety-turned-linebacker. But here’s a kicker on Masterson: He too was once a collegiate safety at Wake Forest. He was a defensive back for four seasons before dropping down lower and earning a starting linebacker spot. He did respond well with 85 total tackles (13 for loss) and 2.5 sacks in 2021.
The Raiders are banking with one year under his belt and a strong offseason the NFL game will have slowed down even more for Masterson to be an impactful defender. Of the other five linebackers on Las Vegas roster heading into training camp at the tail end of this month, Masterson’s likely strongest competition for snaps is Burney — another safety-turned-linebacker.
So it’s Masterson’s spot to lose, essentially.
Which brings up one final matter: Nickel/sub packages.
The Raiders deployed the nickel alignment on 60.6 percent of their snaps last season, according to TruMedia. That package seems to be the true “base defense” in the NFL these days as offense’s are deploying more aerial theatrics. When Las Vegas is in nickel, it’s often just two linebackers on the field. At this point, that duo is Deablo and Spillane. Masterson will need a strong camp and preseason showing to prove he should be on the field in nickel packages.
Because at this stage, Spillane is the more aggressive linebacker who can pack a wallop in comparison to Masterson. But things can change. And it’s up to Masterson to make that happen.