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Raiders training camp primer: Does Michael Mayer start at tight end?

Rookie Michael Mayer and veteran Austin Hooper are the top candidates

NFL: Combine
Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer has the all-around skillset at the tight end position. Mayer can run routes, catch, and block — all traits the Las Vegas Raiders seek from a tight end.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing Darren Waller begins in earnest in just a few short days for the Las Vegas Raiders. That’s when the team embarks on training camp with rookies reporting first on July 20 and veterans joining the fray July 25.

It’s a completely remade tight end room after the Silver & Black dealt Waller to the New York Giants this offseason. The current group is a mix of veteran talent with a very intriguing and highly-touted rookie prospect.

Said neophyte arrives with such high expectations that it beckons this question: Does Michael Mayer start at tight end?

Let’s explore.

The Contenders

Michael Mayer

Las Vegas was ecstatic to find the Notre Dame product still available in the second round and traded up to No. 35 overall to ensure they landed him. Raiders general manager had a first-round grade on Mayer and, heading into the 2023 NFL Draft, was regarded as having blocking technique that was superior than most tight ends in the draft class.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Mayer is well built and has the aggressive attitude to be a run blocking force while also giving the passing attack a reliable and tough option up the seam and over the middle.

Mayer did prove to be a very quick study at Notre Dame and was a starter as a true freshman in 2020. He hauled in 180 passes for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns during his three-year stint in South Bend showcasing his route running, leaping and catching ability, and toughness by taking hits and getting yards after the catch (YAC).

Mayer is a classic combination tight end that head coach Josh McDaniels prefers and with refinement of his blocking game, can give the Raiders’ chief play caller a complete tight end to work with.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Tennessee Titans
Austin Hooper, seen here trying to break a tackle from then-Raiders safety Johnathan Abram, is now in Las Vegas and can compete for the starting tight end job.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Hooper

The eight-year veteran was the second free agent tight end signed in March and brings a wealth of experience having played in 105 total career regular-season games and 59 starts. He also has seven playoff starts under his belt, too.

At 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, Hooper began his NFL career as a third-round pick out of Stanford by the Atlanta Falcons (2016) as a combo tight end who can block and catch. However the 28-year-old’s skill as an in-line blocker waned in 2022 with the Tennessee Titans.

McDaniels wants his tight ends to do both and unless Hooper proves he has better blocking chops than Mayer, he might be relegated to TE2 duties.

That said, Hooper is still a productive and reliable option as a receiving tight end. He hauled in 41 catches for 444 yards and two touchdowns with the Titans with 28 of those receptions being first downs. Over his career, he’s caught 339 passes for 3,468 yards, and 25 touchdowns.

The Depth

O.J. Howard

If the Raiders hadn’t drafted Mayer, this six-year veteran would’ve been the likely TE2 behind Hooper. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound 28-year-old isn’t as spry as he once was when he arrived to the NFL as a first-round pick in 2017 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but he’s still an effective blocker.

While he won’t be confused for a mauler-type as an in-line option, Howard engages blockers and stays on them in both pass and run sequences and he can pack a wallop when on the move or chipping at defenders. Buying time can often be a commendable trait especially as quarterbacks are scanning the field for options.

Howard hasn’t put up substantial receiving numbers since the 2019 season with Tampa (34 catches, 459 yards, one touchdown) as he’s hauled in a total of 35 passes for 426 yards and five touchdowns in the last three seasons.

Howard’s value will be as another in-line option in multiple tight end sets who can block and sneak out on routes for catches.

Arizona Cardinals v Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders tight end Jesper Horsted, left, is willing to do what ever the team asks of him. But with rookie Michael Mayer and veterans Austin Hooper and O.J. Howard in the mix, he faces an uphill climb at the position group.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jesper Horsted

The fleet-footed converted wide receiver is more mainstay on special teams than on offense. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound 26-year-old’s participation rate on offense is minimal at best during his three-year career as he’s totaled just 13 catches for 127 yards and three touchdowns.

Horsted is a willing participant, however, and will do what ever the team asks of him to the best of his ability. But he lacks the savvy and strength to be an in-line blocker type, despite having the run and catch ability as a collegiate wideout.

He’ll have an uphill climb to move up the depth chart at tight end with special teams his likely ticket.

The Longshots

Cole Fotheringham

The undrafted free agent is in the mold of a one-dimensional blocking tight end. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound 25-year-old looks to engage quickly and maintained his blocks during his time at Utah. But he has an angular frame and lower body which doesn’t portend to the required lower-body strength to truly combat NFL defenders.

Fotheringham is the type that’s good for camp competition but is more of a practice squad option than back-end roster type — unless he develops into a standout blocker.

John Samuel Shenker

A receiving tight end with good speed, the undrafted product set the Auburn record for career catches with 68. Shenker is also second in school history with 779 total receiving yards.

However, the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder must showcase he can block at the next level and that will likely take more than one offseason to produce results. He offers very little as an in-line blocker. Although, like Fotheringham, Shenker could make noise and compete for a special teams spot with Horsted.