The Las Vegas Raiders season opener against the Denver Broncos is one of the more interesting Week 1 matchups in the NFL this weekend. Not only is it a game between two divisional opponents, but it’s also a couple of teams who are kicking off new eras.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Raiders will have a new starting quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo while Sean Payton makes his regular season debut as the Broncos’ head coach. Both organizations obviously want to get off to a good start, especially after the Kansas City Chiefs lost, and that means a few role players for each squad will need to step up. Below is a look at a few of those players for the Silver and Black.
Given what’s going on with Chandler Jones, it’s looking like the Raiders are going to have to take the training wheels off of Tyree Wilson and he’ll be making his first NFL start in his first game. The Texas Tech product looked sharp during his lone preseason appearance, but that was only on 12 snaps and the team is going to need him to step into a much bigger role on Sunday as a starter. Also, the Broncos have a couple of good offensive tackles in Garrett Bolles and Mike McGlinchey, so Wilson will face a tough test in his regular-season debut.
Continuing with the theme of Jones being out, Malcolm Koonce will likely get more playing time than what was expected a week ago, and his role as a third-down pass-rusher will be vital.
Part of the reason why Russell Wilson struggled so much last year was he faced pressure on 35.9 percent of his dropbacks, tied for the 11th-highest rate in the league according to Pro Football Focus, and was the most sacked quarterback in the league (55). When under pressure, Wilson posted a sub-par 51.0 PFF passing grade that was 18th among qualifying quarterbacks and has almost as many ‘turnover worth plays’ as ‘big time throws’; eight to nine.
Luckily, Koonce looked good as a pass-rusher in the preseason with six pressures on 41 opportunities and a 17.1 percent win rate, but he needs to continue to build on that momentum as the competition level rises in Week 1.
Greg Van Roten
After making a few spot starts for the Buffalo Bills last year, Greg Van Roten gets a chance to be a starter in the season opener for the first time in a couple of years. He’s also expected to bring stability to the right guard spot for the Raiders, which was one of their biggest weakness a year ago, and he draws a tough first matchup.
Denver signed defensive lineman Zach Allen to a big three-year, $45.75 million contract in the offseason after he posted a top-25 PFF grade (72.7) at the position a year ago and was disruptive with 5.5 sacks and 10 TFL. They also have D.J. Jones coming back, who has built a career out of being a strong run defender and had 18 defensive stops against the run in 2022.
That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Van Roten, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Broncos try and test him early in the game by sending a few blitzes his way seeing as he’s the new guy up front.
The last time the Raiders faced new Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph—Week 2 of 2022 when Joseph was with the Arizona Cardinals—he consistently bracketed, double- or even triple-covered Davante Adams. Essentially, Joseph said, ‘Beat us with someone else,’ and Las Vegas ended up falling short while the All-Pro wideout had just two catches for 12 yards.
I’d expect Denver to use a similar philosophy this weekend and they have a good cornerback in Patrick Sutain II to match up with Adams, meaning another receiver is going to have to step up for the Raiders. This is exactly why the front office brought Jakobi Meyers in, to take some of the pressure off of their top wideout.
Offensively, Las Vegas is hoping to have a ‘pick your poison’ type of receiving corps this year, but Meyers needs to win his one-on-one matchups and that’s going to be especially important in Week 1 given who’s calling plays on the other side.
I touched on this during my key matchups column earlier in the week, so I’ll keep it brief here to avoid repetition, but this is a big game for Robert Spillane in his Raiders debut.
During the offseason, Payton talked a lot about how he’s going to commit to running the football in Denver, and with the team’s top receiver, Jerry Jeudy, being limited in practice with a hamstring injury this week, I’d expect Payton to stay true to his word on Sunday.
Luckily, Spillane is a quality run defender who racked up 13 defensive stops against the run last year while serving as a rotational player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’ll have a bigger role with the Raiders in 2023 as a starting backer and the team will need him to prove he can be just as effective against the run with more opportunities.