ALAMEDA – The Raiders used two NFL Draft-day trades trying to fortify their receiver corps.
Jon Gruden traded a third-round pick to Pittsburgh on the amateur selection’s first day to acquire dynamic, yet troubled deep threat Martavis Bryant. He executed another deal moments after the draft ended, shipping second-round disappointment Jihad Ward to Dallas for Ryan Switzer.
Bryant gave Gruden ideal speed and size. Switzer gave them elusiveness, and prowess from the slot. Adding them to a group that included Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and speedster/return specialist Dwayne Harris seemed to form a well-rounded group with varied skill sets.
Gruden had a man for every job. If only the additions worked out.
Switzer started strong but fell off the pace midway through training camp, and ended up traded (again!) to the Steelers on Aug. 27 for a sixth-round pick.
Bryant didn’t last much longer. He got cut Sept. 1, and is reportedly in danger of being suspended (again!) as a repeat offender of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Gruden says Bryant got cut for different reasons, because the Clemson product struggled to learn the offense, missed practices and had his job taken by Keon Hatcher.
Cooper and Nelson were locked into the starting lineup. And, despite trying out several at the No. 3 spot and in the slot, Seth Roberts kept his job.
Roberts was the team’s primary slot receiver the past two seasons, known both for clutch play and far, far too many drops. This constitutes somewhat of a surprise after Roberts spent the preseason either banged up or working with lower units.
“He’s our starting ‘F’ receiver,” Gruden said. “He’s always making plays in practice, and someone we can depend on.”
He’ll be the first option off the bench in two-receiver sets. Hatcher, Harris (primarily a return specialist) and Brandon LaFell round out the crew. LaFell came aboard Monday, and his arrival cost returner Johnny Holton his job.
LaFell is a ninth-year veteran who spent the last two years with the Bengals. He has done a bit of everything in his career, though he has some catching up to do learning Gruden’s offense.
“He has played multiple roles and played well when he’s played. Physical guy,” Gruden said. “We think he can come in and get ready quickly to make a contribution. He’s got size we like, he’s an excellent blocker, high-effort player, detailed, professional wide out. He’s going to give us some versatility and depth, which we need.”
Hatcher will play special teams, and be a reserve at every spot. He earned a spot following a solid camp and an explosive preseason finale where he scored three touchdowns. He’s a smooth route runner with reliable hands and a penchant for dramatic catches.
While the receiver depth chart’s back end has been in near constant flux, the top two haven’t changed.
Cooper will be the passing game’s primary weapon, a dynamic player who can do most everything well. Well known as an excellent route runner, Cooper has focused on high-pointing the ball well and seeing the ball into his hands.
He’s a bit bigger and strong, hoping to sustain typically physical play against him and stay healthy a full season. He will move around some, playing more in the slot that he did last year. A two-way go could help a precise route runner get free.
“’Coop has it all,” Hatcher said. “He does everything well, and I think he’s good enough to take over the league.”
Everyone benefits from Nelson’s presence. Cooper especially has grown from his guidance, especially the detail oriented work that has made Nelson Aaron Rodgers’ go-to guy for nearly a decade in Green Bay.
“Jordy’s a bit like me in that he doesn’t talk too much but when he does, it’s always something very important,” Cooper said. “My ears perk up whenever he says something in the meeting room.
“He’s always trying to give advice and discussing things they did in Green Bay. They were really explosive on offense. Everytime he talks, I listen. It always makes sense, and I’m always adjusting to things he tells me because I know it’s something good.”
The preseason group looked good on paper, but didn’t pan out. Gruden likes specific receiver types, and he hand picked a crew to work with Carr. Monday’s game against a talented Rams secondary will be a solid litmus test for how well the receiver corps works, whether Nelson can find old form, Cooper can be a dominant presence under Gruden and whether Roberts can finally find consistently and the other contribute when called upon.