In less than a week, everyone will be in-house for the Las Vegas Raiders as veterans report to training camp on Tuesday. Over the next month-plus, be prepared to hear the phrase “next step” when it comes to guard Dylan Parham, running back Zamir White and the rest of the Raiders' second-year players.
While the phrase is easy to comprehend, the meaning is ambiguous and varies player by player. So, what does the “next step” look like for each of Las Vegas’ sophomores?
Next Step: Improve pass protection
Between adjusting to the NFL in general and bouncing back and forth between three different positions, a lot was thrown at Parham last year. His head was undoubtedly spinning as a rookie and that was a big reason why he allowed the second-most pressures (55) of any guard in 2022, per Pro Football Focus.
A lot of the times when he lost in pass protection came when the defense through a wrinkle at him like a line game or a disguised blitz as it seemed like he was often thinking too much instead of reacting. Parham even admitted as much during the Raiders’ spring practices.
“The game is already fast as is, and so my first year I just felt like I was trying to learn the offense and now it’s just like, okay, now I understand offense, it’s time to be able to look at defenses and understand what it is that they’re trying to do,” the guard explained. “And so, for myself, eye placement, hands, feet progressions, just have my feet in sequence. A lot of times I felt like I was off playing with what it was I was trying to do, so just working on slowing everything down so that I can be efficient in what I’m trying to do.”
Parham talking about the game slowing down for him is a step in the right direction. He was solid as a run blocker last season, but to become the complete offensive lineman the offense needs him to be, he must keep pass rushers away from the quarterback more often.
Next step: Improve vision
With Josh Jacobs leading the league in touches last year, there weren’t many opportunities for White to make an impact in year one, so one could argue that his next step is to just get more playing time. However, with Jacobs’ impending holdout, the Silver and Black are going to need more than that from the “next guy up”.
Including the preseason, White had 42 rushing attempts for 148 yards or about 3.5 yards per carry in 2022. The league average during the regular season last year was about 4.4 ypc and a big reason why he fell below that mark was he struggled to consistently find the optimal running lane.
On his longest run of the year, a 22-yard scamper against the Denver Broncos in Week 4, White did an excellent job of reading and working off blocks to set up a scoring opportunity inside the 10-yard line. However, those reps were few and far between as he only had five runs of 10 more yards in 2022, and the figure above drops just below 3.1 yards per tote after removing the outlier.
This is something the Georgia product needed to work on coming out of college so it isn’t a new issue, but he needs to improve to potentially take over as the team’s lead back.
Neil Farrell Jr.
Next step: Be stouter vs. the run
When the Raiders drafted Neil Farrell Jr., they thought they were getting a run-stuffing defensive tackle who posted the third-highest PFF run defense grade (89.9) in the country that fall. However, he struggled to hold his ground in both the pre and regular seasons as that mark dropped to 40.2 and 39.3, respectively.
That was supposed to be Farrell Jr.’s niche in the league and any pass-rush production from him would be considered a bonus. However, the defense couldn’t rely on him to plug up gaps as a run defender and that's part of the reason why he only logged 158 regular-season snaps.
Especially with Johnathan Hankins and Andrew Billings playing elsewhere this season, Las Vegas really needs the fourth-round pick to step up against the run. Otherwise, he can expect to spend a lot of time on the sidelines again this fall.
Next step: Win more consistently as a pass-rusher
Matthew Butler was considered a project when the Raiders drafted him in the fifth round last year, so it makes sense that he barely saw the field in year one. However, another reason why he didn’t get much playing time during the regular season was he struggled to win consistently as a pass-rusher in August.
During the team’s first three preseason games last year, Butler only managed one pressure on 50 opportunities. He did explode for five pressures in the last contest of the month, but his 8.9 percent win rate ranked fifth out of Las Vegas’ eight defensive tackles who participated in the games that don’t count.
Bumping that figure up is the Tennessee product’s key to getting more playing time in 2023.
Next step: Improve as a run-blocker
As a seventh-round pick, it’s hard to knock Thayer Munford for his performance as a rookie. He was stout in pass protection, surrendering just four pressures on 40 pass-blocking snaps in August and 11 on 216 in the fall, per PFF. However, he didn’t have as much success in the ground game, posting run-blocking grades of 49.6 and 56.3, respectively.
Whether it’s at guard or right tackle, the Raiders could really benefit from another offensive lineman stepping their game up. If Munford is going to be that guy and eventually become a starter, he needs to create some rushing lanes in training camp.
Next step: Shine in the preseason, again
To be honest, it’s difficult to pin down what Brittain Brown’s next step is because he barely played during the regular season and only got run on special teams at that. But Brown was arguably the team’s MVP in the preseason, rushing for 153 yards at a 4.5-yard clip for two touchdowns in three games. He also forced 10 missed tackles, the fourth-most of any running back, and out-performed White.
If the UCLA product can replicate that effort this time around, he might end up being the primary back who takes over for Jacobs.
Next step: Cutdown on missed tackles
With several injuries to Las Vegas’ linebacking corps last season, Luke Masterson ended up making a handful of starts as an undrafted rookie. He was productive during that time, recording 59 total tackles with 16 of those going down as a defensive stop—a tackle that results in a “failure” for the offense.
However, his missed tackles were a major issue as he had 10 at a 17.5 percent rate and the latter was the third-worst among linebackers in 2022. The good news is he only missed two tackles (9.5 percent) in the preseason, so he’s clearly capable of cleaning that up. With how wide-open the Raiders' linebacker spots are this August, he could easily play his way into a Week 1 starting job by shoring that up.
Next step: Make more plays on the ball
Sam Webb turned some heads last August by leading the team with a 76.7 coverage grade from PFF and tieing for the most coverage stops (six) among cornerbacks league-wide. That’s how he managed to make the team as an undrafted rookie and get some playing time in the fall.
That being said, Webb only logged three pass breakups and had zero interceptions in the regular and preseason combined. He enters camp this year in another battle to stay on the 53-man roster, and head coach Josh McDaniels has already talked about wanting the team’s defensive backs to make more plays on the ball. So, improving in that area is how the Division II product can catch the coaching staff’s eye.
Next step: Become more comfortable in the box
Last August, Isaiah Pola-Moa took reps at both free and strong safety but was primarily used on the back end, logging 86 snaps there compared to 35 in the box. The coaching staff was likely trying to find the best way to use him, and they eventually determined that will be on the second level as the ratio above flipped, 11 to 35, during his limited regular season action.
That should be a point of emphasis during Pola-Moa’s second training camp as the fastest way for him to see the field—and the best way to make the 53-man roster—is fulfilling that box safety role. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham loves using the hybrid safety types on the second level of his defense, so that’s how the former Trojan can fall into the coaching staff’s good graces.