Raiders getting vital contributions from undrafted free agent class

Raiders getting vital contributions from undrafted free agent class

SAN DIEGO – James Cowser needed less than 10 professional snaps to make a big impact. The Raiders edge rusher pushed his man deep into the backfield, then cut inside and sacked Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a 10-yard loss.

The Southern Utah alum’s first NFL sack was a big moment. The entire team enjoyed it, though there were few enjoying as much as Jalen Richard.

Undrafted rookies, it seems, always stick together.

“Everything that we’re doing now, people didn’t think we would be able to do,” Richard said. “There were no expectations for undrafted guys like us. Everything we do, no matter how small, is bigger than what people thought we would do.”

There’s something about coming up the hard way that bonds players together. Going undrafted is an unpleasant experience. Working from the bottom on up comes with a great sense of satisfaction.

There are several Raiders who have felt that way. They started the season with four undrafted free agents on the 53-man roster, and now have seven on the active roster.

Richard is the most popular and productive member of that group, but isn’t the only contributor. Darius Latham is a staple on the interior defensive line. Johnny Holton is a quality gunner and used on reverses. Denver Kirkland was an extra linemen in jumbo packages. Cowser has a sack and a fumble recovery in just three games played.

Cowser took a long road to this opportunity. He impressed in training camp but suffered a concussion in the preseason finale and got cut with an injury settlement. He was signed to the practice squad when rules permitted and was promoted to the active roster with Shilique Calhoun suffered a knee injury. He has made the most of this chance.

“It’s a great story and we have so many of these young guys that are creating their own stories,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Their desire and their effort, their energy, it’s healthy for the team to have that around. We let guys earn their way and these guys that have come in, no matter how you get here, once you get here take advantage of the opportunity and he has. He’s really a dependable guy, works really hard, very diligent and happy to see him have that success.”

The Raiders take pride in finding diamonds in the rough. General manager Reggie McKenzie and the staff have found several undrafted gems in recent seasons, including Marquette King, Denico Autry and Seth Roberts.

“Our scouts do a really great job of identifying guys we need to target after the draft,” McKenzie said. “It was impressive how many undrafted guys made the team this year, especially this was our most talent roster since I’ve been here.

“You’re expected to get good players early in the draft, but to have some of the later round guys and free agents not only make it but produce, that’s what it’s all about.”

Adding young depth through unorthodox sources could help keep this good thing going and veterans filter through. This undrafted group in particular has really bonded over earning their role the hard way. That’s why they’re always rooting the other undrafted guys on.

“We first came here for rookie minicamp, and you ended up spending all the extra time with young guys,” Cowser said. “You really get to know each other, so it’s super cool to see your friends doing big things.”

Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders


Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had a hand in drafting Josh Johnson a decade ago. The agile quarterback and Oakland native was a Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2008, Gruden’s last year as Buccaneers coach.

The pair will reunite in Johnson’s hometown. The well-traveled quarterback signed with the Raiders on Monday, the team announced.

Johnson will compete with Connor Cook to backup starter Derek Carr, and brings a veteran’s influence to the position group. It likely spells the end of EJ Manuel’s short tenure in silver and black. The strong-armed former first-round pick, who started one game last season, remains a free agent after a year with the Raiders.

This move should make Marshawn Lynch happy. He and Johnson are extremely close and together run the Family First Foundation, a charitable organization that does significant work for East Bay kids. Johnson and Lynch also played football together at Oakland Tech High.

Johnson has played 10 NFL teams prior to this Raiders stop, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game for some time.

Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'


Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed specific tools to run his running game. He wanted blocking tight ends and a bruising fullback, relics of a bygone offensive era.

“If Marshawn Lynch is the feature back, I think it’d be nice if we serviced him with a fullback,” Gruden said at the combine. … You need a blocking tight end if you’re going to slam the ball with a beast. So, those are two things that I’m looking for.”

Gruden said he wanted to import some old-school elements to help run with brute force.

Enter free-agent fullback Kyle Smith and tight end Derek Carrier. Welcome back, Lee Smith.

Then, on Sunday, Raiders made another vital move in this old school effort. They cut Marshawn Lynch a $1 million check.

The Oakland native’s roster bonus came due and the Raiders had no problem paying it, the clearest sign Lynch will be the Raiders feature back in 2018.

He’ll have a great chance to thrive in that role. The Raiders have a hulking, expensive offensive line (that still needs a right tackle). They have new ancillary blocking elements, and the centerpiece remains in place.

That last part was expected in recent weeks. The coaching staff, offensive line coach Tom Cable especially, wanted Lynch back. NFL Network confirmed those facts, stating Lynch will be around in 2018.

That was the case, even with Doug Martin’s addition. The former Tampa Bay back is expected to be a backup bruiser, someone who might put DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard’s job in jeopardy.

The Raiders can cut Lynch without a cap hit. Lynch is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses, with another $2 million available in incentives. The Raiders should hope to pay those; it would mean Lynch is running well.

The Raiders have given him a great opportunity to do so. They have solid blocking and a coach in Cable who helped him succeed during dominant days in Seattle.

Lynch proved he’s still got it in 2017’s second half, with 70 percent of his 891 rushing yards in the final eight games. He struggled early on, and upset some fans by helping the opposition during a scuffle with Kansas City. That mitigated a PR bump the Raiders looked for when signing a popular Oakland native just months after committing to Las Vegas long-term.

Jack Del Rio and staff grew tired of what they perceived as leeway given to Lynch unavailable to others, and probably wouldn’t have kept him on if still gainfully employed.

Gruden seems committed to Lynch this season, though nothing is ever 100 percent with an enigmatic rusher who doesn’t make private thoughts public.

His elusive, rough-and-tumble rushing style fits well with what Gruden wants, though he demands commitment to the team and sport. Sports Illustrated relayed a story of Gruden saying he needed a “full-time Lynch.”

If he gets that, the Raiders run game should thrive.