Raiders

Raiders 2017 roster projection, version 1.0

brent-kj-raiders-white-catch.jpg
AP

Raiders 2017 roster projection, version 1.0

The Raiders have roughly three weeks until the 90-man roster gets cut. That’s a long time in preseason life, especially with the team still entrenched at the Napa Valley Marriott and three preseason games left. There’s plenty of film left to create and then evaluate.

Players on the bubble have made some decisions tough, with competition at several positions. Let’s pretend the 53-man roster deadline is today. Here’s NBCSportsCalifornia.com’s current roster projection, admitting that there’s time for changes as the preseason wears on to make a talented roster:

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
Rodney Hudson
Donald Penn
Marshall Newhouse
Kelechi Osemele
Gabe Jackson
Jon Feliciano
Vadal Alexander
David Sharpe
Denver Kirkland
The Raiders generally keep nine offensive linemen, providing depth to position groups they value. The starting five is intact with Newhouse at right tackle upon Penn’s return. Feliciano can play all three interior spots, and Omoile makes the team with similar versatility. The Raiders have depth a tackle with Alexander and Sharpe, who can play on both sides. UPDATE (12:57 p.m.): Leaving Denver Kirkland off was an oversight. I've added him now. Assuming he didn't suffer a serious injury after being carted off the sideline Saturday at Arizona, he should make the squad. Omoile comes back into play if Kirkland's season is in jeopardy. 

RUNNING BACKS (4)
Marshawn Lynch
Jalen Richard
DeAndre Washington
Jamize Olawale
The Raiders have a versatile group, with players who can protect the passer and run the ball. Olawale should lead the special teams. The group is light, but a fifth back would’ve been a key special teams player. We found one at another position. Elijah Hood seems like a practice squad candidate.

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Derek Carr
EJ Manuel
Connor Cook
Manuel is leading the backup quarterback battle, and while the Raiders have gone with two quarterbacks before, the trio should remain intact. Cook is entering his second season and will be given more time to develop.

TIGHT ENDS (4)
Jared Cook
Lee Smith
Clive Walford
Gabe Holmes
This group gives the Raiders options and depth at tight end. Cook is a legitimate receiving threat and Smith ranks among the league’s best blocking tight ends. Walford can do a bit of everything, but is still developing as a player. Coaches like Holmes, who provides quality depth and could feature on every special teams unit. He makes the team as an anchor in the kicking game.

RECEIVERS (5)
Amari Cooper
Michael Crabtree
Seth Roberts
Cordarrelle Patterson
Johnny Holton
The first four spots are written in pen. The last remains up for grabs, with K.J. Brent pushing hard for that final spot. Holton had it last year and could hang on to it thanks to great speed, improved route running and his place as a gunner on special teams. Brent has worked well subbing for an injured Amari Cooper. He has prototypical NFL receiver size and has proven adept catching passes in traffic. Can he be an impact special teams player? That could be a deciding factor here. Jaydon Mickens is also in this tight race for a roster spot.

DEFENSIVE LINE (8)
Khalil Mack
Eddie Vanderdoes
Jihad Ward
Denico Autry
Mario Edwards
Justin Ellis
James Cowser
Treyvon Hester
Darius Latham might be the toughest cut of this projection. He earned a spot as an undrafted player last year and played extensive snaps. He is a quality run player, but Hester seems to offer more as an internal pass rusher. Latham hasn’t worked much with top units, and could be a casualty of a position upgrade. The Raiders have more athletes inside, with Ellis plugging gaps on rushing downs. Cowser is Mack’s understudy. Edwards and Vanderdoes should lead a rotation inside.

LINEBACKERS (6)
Bruce Irvin
Jelani Jenkins
Marquel Lee
Cory James
Tyrell Adams
Shilique Calhoun
This group of inside linebackers are young and inexperienced, and this assumes Lee and James to enough to keep the front office from signing a veteran to join the group. Adams and Jenkins will work in reserve and on special teams. Calhoun is Irvin’s backup.

CORNERBACKS (6)
Gareon Conley
Sean Smith
David Amerson
Breon Borders
TJ Carrie
Dexter McDonald
Some fans are calling for Smith’s release after a rough start to camp, but there are several reasons that seems unrealistic. Smith is guaranteed $9.5 million this season. Getting something for that cash is ideal. Smith still has great talent, and could right the ship before long. He could provide depth if Conley or Carrie take his starting spot. The Raiders are trying him out as a dime hybrid linebacker as well, and he could be an option there. Borders continues to impress, and McDonald has been the best cornerback among the rest. Antonio Hamilton and Kenneth Durden will continue fighting for their spot.

SAFETIES (5)
Reggie Nelson
Karl Joseph
Obi Melifonwu
Shalom Luani
Keith McGill
McGill could be out 6-8 weeks with a foot injury, but might only miss a few regular-season games if that timetable holds. The Raiders will leave him on the roster and avoid releasing a top special teams player or using an IR return option on him. He could end up on IR if the recovery timetable is longer, giving an undrafted player a shot at the roster. Or the Raiders could add another defensive lineman or cornerback and go with four safeties. Luani has impressed thus far, and the team still has high hopes for Melifonwu despite his training camp injury.

SPECIALISTS (3)
Marquette King
Jon Condo
Sebastian Janikowski
This trio will charge into another season together, though it’s an important campaign for Janikowski entering a contract year.

Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots

sean-smith-raiders-cowboys-ap.jpg
AP

Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders cornerback David Amerson didn’t practice all week, but ran just well enough to be considered “doubtful” for Sunday’s game against New England.

Translation: Outlook for Sunday is not good, but Jack Del Rio’s fingers remained crossed real, real tight. The Raiders hope there’s a way he can be active against Tom Brady’s buzz saw attack, because their cover men are beat up.

Amerson has missed two straight with a foot injury, and has dealt with injury all year. Gareon Conley’s season officially ended Monday, when he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Antonio Hamilton and Demetrius McCray were already there.

Reggie McKenzie hasn’t reached out for reinforcements. That leaves TJ Carrie, Dexter McDonald and Sean Smith to play cornerback. Carrie’s been the rock, a sure tackler who hasn’t made spectacular plays but doesn’t give them up. McDonald has been forced into action, with holes let in his game.

Smith should be the No. 1 guy in this group, the steadying presence on the outside. That hasn’t been the case this year, where he lost a starting job in training camp and sub-package snaps during the season, only to have injuries to Conley and Amerson bring him in the fray.

He’s also been dealing with felony assault and battery charges in Los Angeles stemming from a July 4 incident in Pasadena.

Smith has been a lightning rod for fan criticism, a byproduct of his $9.5 million salary this year and explosive plays allowed early in the year.

If there’s an anvil weighing on his mind, teammates insist you’d never know.

“We’re human at the end of the day,” Amerson said. “You feel it, but you have to find a way to remain even keel and professional and do your job well.”

Smith will be counted on heavily Sunday against New England, especially if Amerson can’t play as expected. He has proven vulnerable to speed without help and proper disruption at the line of scrimmage, though that hasn’t been an issue lately because the Utah alum has recovered well after a rough start.

He got pulled after struggling against Vernon Davis in Washington. He didn’t play against the Chargers after giving up two huge plays to Baltimore the week before.

Amerson originally sprained his foot in Week 7 against Kansas City – he hasn’t played since – and Smith was called upon to respond. He wasn’t targeted in that game, and has been strong in coverage ever since.

Smith has allowed three catches for 12 yards in four targets over the last two games. The ninth-year veteran insists he wasn’t doing anything markedly different, and had zero interest in patting himself on the back for recent jobs well done.

“I’m not,” Smith said. “I’m out there doing my job, man, the best way I can.”

Smith says the off-field distractions during a roller-coaster season, one of his career’s most trying yet, haven’t impacted him much

“Nope. Not at all,” Smith said. “As long as I wake up a Raider, I’m all right. I’ll deal with whatever happens. I’ll always be there for my guys, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

Raiders defensive backs laud Smith’s locker room presence, saying he’s an excellent teammate. Cornerbacks in general must have a short memory when things go bad, to refocus and prevent that from happening again. Smith apparently has that in spades.

“I know how things go, especially when you have a target on your back,” Amerson said. “Sometimes you get hit with the perfect pass and you give up some plays. You can’t do anything about that but take advantage of the next opportunity. Sean’s a good player, and he definitely has that mindset.”

Smith will lend experience to this big game, something the Raiders need after suffering so many injuries.

"It sucks that so many of us have gone down,” Smith said. "You want to have all your guys out there, but that’s the NFL. Injuries happen. As long as everybody comes to work and acts like a pro, we’ll be all right. We all have a job to do. We all would like to start, but you have to be ready when your number’s called.”

Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude

mack-carr-mexico-2016-ap.jpg
AP

Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders spent all week at sea level preparing to play 1-¼ miles up. They left Oakland around noon on Saturday confident that altitude won’t be an issue in Sunday’s game against New England.

Estadio Azteca sits at 7,200 feet, a comparable elevation to where the Patriots have been practicing in Colorado Springs. That has created a debate of sorts about which philosophy works best. There’s science to support staying in altitude with New England.

There’s plenty more to back head coach Jack Del Rio’s desire to get in and out of altitude as fast as possible. We won’t break down the arguments here. There are plenty of stories written about that.

We’ll simply say the Raiders believe in their approach, and have experience to support it. The Raiders best Houston in Mexico City last year in a dramatic affair that required two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“I thought we handled our business well last year and we’ve got a similar approach this year,” Del Rio said. “We expect to go down there and play in a great atmosphere. The fans are very engaged. It’s a great atmosphere to be a part of. Just go down there and play good football.”

The Raiders have worked toward this game the past three weeks. They’ve worked on exercise bikes and treadmills using elevation machine, which matches oxygen outputs at specific elevation. Players have done that and have then been able to recover at sea level. They’ve worn popularized oxygen deprivation masks during other activities, though they’ve practiced as usual.

The Raiders know what to expect in terms of logistics, altitude and air pollution. The Raiders have prepared well for this experience, but that doesn’t mean altitude doesn’t impact finely tuned athletes.

“When you get there, you’re going to feel it,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s different than anything you’ve ever felt. It’s different than Denver. It was a way tougher challenge. You felt it right away. It hits you getting off the plane.”

Both teams must play in adverse conditions.

“We just have to go play,” Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “You guys aren’t going to say the altitude had an effect on the outcome. You can’t use it as an excuse. You can’t think about that. You have to train and prepare the way they’ve been having us prepare and go out there and execute.”

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hasn’t talked much about his strategy of staying at elevation after playing in Denver last week. Extended time away from home can be a bonding time, as the Raiders experienced a fortnight past in Sarasota, FL. He didn’t consider the time spent at Air Force Academy to be a significant advantage.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Belichick said. “The way the schedule worked out, this worked out for us. We’re here and we’re just doing the best we can to get ready for the game.”

The Raiders anticipate Estadio Azteca to feel like home away from home. Raider Nation turned out en masse last year in Houston, giving the neutral site a silver and black edge. Fans took it to the extreme at times, pointing a green laser pointer in Texans quarterback Brock Osweiller’s eyes.

The NFL will certainly be looking to quell those disruptions, especially with a marquee Patriots team in town. New England fans will be audible this time, but another pro-Raiders atmosphere is expected. That’s why Derek Carr isn’t worried about distractions from the crowd.

“No, no, no, no, no. I think that going down there is a home field advantage,” Carr said. “I’m not worried about the laser pointers. I think that’s for the other guys.”