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5 players to watch during the preseason, including Isaiah Pola-Mao and Byron Young

Game week is finally here!

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders
Isaiah Pola-Mao
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

It’s finally here, game week baby! While the final score doesn’t count, we get to watch some Las Vegas Raiders football this weekend as the Raiders are set to kick off the preseason on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

The following month is more about getting the team ready for the regular season and giving the young players on the roster an opportunity to make a name for themselves, so below are five names to keep an eye on for the Silver and Black during the preseason. All five could play critical roles in the fall but must end the summer strong first.

Byron Young

Fresh off the PUP list and into a position battle at defensive tackle, Byron Young might have some catching up to do but also has an opportunity to push for a starting spot and/or playing time as a rookie with a strong preseason.

Veteran 3-techniques Bilal Nichols and Jerry Tillery both struggled last season, especially against the run, and second-year pro Matthew Butler barely saw the field. Meanwhile, Young is coming off a season where he ranked in the Top 10 among SEC defensive tackles in run stops (16) and PFF run defense grade (75.6). In other words, he could help fix one of the position group's biggest issues from a year ago.

The Alabama product’s pass rush is still a work in progress but did show growth in that area last season with a career-high 28 pressures, tied for the second-most at his position in the conference. That was also the only time he got anywhere close to 300 pass-rush snaps (299) during his four years in Tuscaloosa, so don’t be surprised if Young proves to be a more productive rusher in the pros than he was in college.

If he can show the latter during the preseason, the starting spot could easily be his.

Isaiah Pola-Mao

Part of the reason Isaiah Pola-Mao is a ‘player to watch during the preseason’ is it will be interesting just to see how the coaching staff chooses to use him. Previously, I mentioned how all signs are pointing toward him playing in the box more as a strong safety and broke down what that might look like based on his limited playing time in 2022.

One way that Pola-Mao could be deployed is as a tight end eraser in coverage. Again, it was a small sample size, but he was good at defending against the pass last year by allowing five completions on nine targets for just 29 yards and five defensive stops, per PFF. However, he has plenty of room for growth as a run defender with a 39.9 PFF grade in that department during the regular season and a 42.6 mark in the preseason.

The USC product reportedly added some size in the offseason which should help him hold up against physical route runners and improve against the ground game.

Jesper Horsted

New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders
Jesper Horsted
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

If you’ve been following my work lately, you know I’m all aboard the Jesper Horsted hype train. His receiving skills have always been there as a record-setting wide receiver at Princeton who has 21 catches for 342 yards and five touchdowns in 10 career preseason games as a professional.

As expected, run-blocking has been Horsted’s biggest hurdle since making the position switch, but he did show growth in that area last August. Now, it’s time for him to put it all together and he could earn a significant role on the team as the second tight end. Head coach Josh McDaniels loves using 12 and 22 personnel and Austin Hooper shouldn’t have that spot locked down seeing as he’s playing on his third team in as many years.

Also, Horsted is entering his fifth season in the league, so it feels like he’s entering a ‘now or never’ type of situation when it comes to his NFL career, heightening the stakes for him this month.

Netane Muti

Similar to Horsted, Netane Muti is playing in what projects to be a pivotal season in his career. Muti begins his fourth year in the league after playing sparingly for the Denver Broncos with just 467 career regular season snaps and seeing action in 10 games offensively.

Las Vegas plucked him off of Denver’s practice squad late last season and, according to former Bronco offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, the Broncos made a last-ditch effort to sign Muti to the 53-man roster but he chose to play for the Silver and Black.

Likely frustrated with the lack of opportunities in the Mile High City, he has an excellent chance to get some playing time with the Raiders as the team could use someone to step up at right guard.

The former Bronco was drafted in 2020 and has battled injuries throughout his career, limiting him to just one preseason in three years, but he did earn an 81.1 PFF grade in those three contests. If he can build off of that performance from a couple of years ago, he could have a bright future in Las Vegas.

Jakorian Bennett

Jakorian Bennett is another guy where it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff chooses to deploy him in the preseason. In college, he was primarily an outside corner but did take more than 225 snaps over the slot in three years at Maryland, giving him some position flexibility in the pros.

Also, the Raiders' competition at cornerback is pretty wide-open. Recent free-agent signing Marcus Peters is probably the only definitive starter heading into the preseason as Nate Hobbs is likely next in line, and the third spot on the depth chart is kind of a crapshoot.

Anyone could win that battle, including Bennett who ranked fifth among Big 10 cornerbacks last year with a 45.7 passer rating when targeted. Also, it will be interesting to see in the preseason if his ball skills can translate to the pros as he racked up 15 PBUs and five interceptions during his last two seasons in college.