The Las Vegas Raiders’ first preseason game of 2023 against the San Francisco 49ers couldn’t have gone much better. The Raiders’ defense started the contest with three consecutive three-and-outs while the offense gave them a 7-0 lead on their first possession, and the team never looked back en route to a 34-7 victory.
There’s plenty of praise to go around in Las Vegas as this week’s winners and losers are listed below.
WINNER: Aidan O’Connell
Easily the biggest winner for the Silver and Black was rookie quarterback, Aidan O’Connell, and he had arguably the most-impressive performance across the entire league. He went 15 of 18 as a passer and only one incompletion was his fault as a couple of drops accounted for the other two.
O’Connell’s 141 yards and one touchdown were modest compared to his other numbers, but his 117.8 passer rating ranked second among qualifying quarterbacks and was the highest of any rookie by about 30 points. He also earned the second-best grade from Pro Football Focus with an elite mark of 92.3 among all passers and was the best of the 2023 draft class.
Not bad for the eighth QB selected last April.
The Purdue product had a fantastic NFL debut and showed that he can command Josh McDaniels’ offense. In fact, he played so well that the Raiders might have a backup quarterback battle moving forward.
LOSER: Brian Hoyer
Yes, Brian Hoyer didn’t play so it’s hard to consider him as too much of a ‘loser’ from the game as he hasn’t had a chance to rebuttal against O’Connell’s performance. However, the rookie playing so well could put the veteran’s job stability on shaky grounds.
At this point in his career, the Raiders’ coaching staff knows what they're getting in the soon-to-be 38-year-old. Hoyer is a backup who can keep the offense afloat if Jimmy Garoppolo has to miss some time and prevent the team from having to rush O’Connell onto the field before O’Connell is ready. However, the fourth-round pick didn’t look like he needed much of a grace period on Sunday.
The better O’Connell plays during the preseason, the less Las Vegas needs Hoyer. If the former continues to shine over the next couple of weeks, then the latter could become expendable and the coaching staff might want to save a roster spot by keeping just two quarterbacks on the active roster.
WINNER: John Jenkins
Defensive tackle John Jenkins didn’t play much against the 49ers—just 12 total snaps—but he certainly made his presence felt.
On the first play of the game, Jenkins recorded his first sack with the Silver and Black. He followed that up with a nice bull rush on the very next play and left the contest with two solo tackles, the one sack and another pressure. A pretty productive outing given the limited amount of reps.
The 11-year veteran entered training camp in a battle for positioning on the depth chart at defensive tackle where his biggest competitive advantage is his run defense. So, if he continues to prove to be a productive pass-rusher, he might play his way into the starting lineup.
LOSER: Azizi Hearn
While Azizi Hearn did lead the team in tackles with eight total, that’s not exactly a category where you want to top the charts as a cornerback. A big reason why he filled up the stat sheet was that he allowed all four passes thrown his way to go for completions and a total of 74 yards, according to PFF.
Adding to that is Hearn surrendered catches to three different receivers, meaning he was struggling to cover just about anyone out there. He ended the day with the lowest PFF coverage grade (48.2) among Las Vegas’ defensive backs and he didn’t enter with much margin for error.
The Raiders have a pretty full cornerback room where the undrafted free agent was already going to have a hard time making the roster. One bad performance could seal his fate and hurts his case to stick around on the practice squad.
WINNER: Amari Burney
The Raiders drafted Amari Burney last April primarily for his ability to affect the passing game and that’s exactly what he did on Sunday.
In coverage, he was targeted three times and only allowed one completion for 12 yards while picking up a pass breakup and surrendering just a 46.5 passer rating. Granted, that pass breakup should have been an interception, but it was still a nice play nonetheless.
Burney also managed to pick up a sack on one of his two opportunities to rush the passer, further cementing his impressive outing. He made a strong case to move up the depth chart in Las Vegas’ wide-open competition at linebacker.
LOSER: Justin Herron
Sunday was Justin Herron’s first game back after tearing an ACL last October, so we can cut him some slack for not being his best right out of the gate. However, it’s worth mentioning that he did struggle in pass protection.
Lining up against former Raiders’ first-round pick Clelin Ferrell, Herron overset on a pass set and Ferrell was able to beat him quickly with an inside move to pick up a sack. The offensive tackle also gave up another pressure at another point in the game, en route to recording a sub-par PFF pass-protection grade (52.5) that ranked in the bottom-25 among at the position for the weekend.
Granted, Herron did earn an impressive mark as a run blocker (79.3) and that’s something to build off of heading into next week. But he needs to do a better job of keeping the quarterback clean to maintain his status as the backup left tackle.
WINNER: Patrick Graham
The majority of talk during the offseason was centered on how the Raiders need to improve defensively which, obviously, falls on defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s shoulders. Specifically, the Raiders talked about wanting to make more impact plays on that side of the ball and that’s exactly what they showed against the 49ers.
Graham’s unit finished the day with four sacks, three passes defended, one interception and one forced fumble and recovery. They allowed just seven points and the two turnovers gave the offense short fields that led to 14 points on the board, so Las Vegas’ defense essentially netted seven points.
It’s hard to ask for a much better start to the season than that as the team’s coaching staff has talked about making the scheme simpler during training camp, and Sunday’s performance was a good indication that has been effective so far.