Raiders

Five Raiders to watch in Week 14: Darren Waller must shine vs. Titans

Five Raiders to watch in Week 14: Darren Waller must shine vs. Titans

OAKLAND -- Sunday’s game is the biggest of the Raiders' regular season.

Yeah, you’ve read that before. Maybe, you know, on this website and in this weekly series.

That’s because the Raiders had a chance to pull even atop the AFC West in last week’s game in Kansas City. The Silver and Black had a real chance to win their first division crown since 2002. That opportunity’s essentially blown, with the Raiders down two games (and a head-to-head tiebreaker) to the Chiefs.

Now we’re on to a pivotal wild-card matchup with the Tennessee Titans, who are blocking the Raiders’ path to the No. 6 seed. Beat them and pull even, with a head-to-head tiebreaker. Lose, and the Raiders can make New Year’s Eve vacation plans.

So, yeah, for the second straight week, this is as big as it gets.

The margin for error was burned on consecutive blowout losses to the Jets and Chiefs. Turn things around at home against Tennessee and optimism comes flooding back with three games remaining against 4-8 clubs.

“We’ve had a rough two weeks,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said this week. “I’ve had a rough two weeks. It’s time to get back on track, it’s time to get back in our stadium, it’s time to be efficient on offense, it’s time to win. I’m excited we get a chance to go compete against a really good football team. That’s the beautiful thing about this game. You rewind two weeks ago, we were the greatest story in the NFL and two weeks later we suck again, so I think we’ll be all right. We are just going to keep grinding, we’re going to stick to what we do.”

Here five players not named Derek Carr or Josh Jacobs -- those guys are obviously key -- vital to beating the Titans on Sunday at Oakland Coliseum.

TE Darren Waller

Opponents have devoted significant effort to slowing down the Raiders' best and most reliable pass-catcher. They’ve had mixed results, though Waller has worked tirelessly trying to perfect techniques to bust extra coverage and make plays. The coaching staff is also working to scheme him open. Those efforts worked out well in Kansas City, where Waller had seven catches for 100 yards.

The Raiders need Waller to be equally productive on Sunday against the Titans. Tennessee hasn’t been great against tight ends, allowing 59 catches for 675 yards and seven touchdowns to tight ends. That’s particularly exploitable with the Raiders’ tight-end personnel groupings, with Waller Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier all capable of making plays down the field.

Waller will be most active in that effort and can’t disappear into shaded coverage in this important contest. Waller believes he should succeed no matter how he’s covered. That’ll be important on Sunday afternoon.

DT Johnathan Hankins

Derrick Henry’s a massive human. The running back is cruelly efficient taking yards and levying punishment with his physical running style. Henry’s good running inside and out, but Hankins must lead the run defense by closing rush lanes on the interior.

Hankins is the Raiders' best run defender and must play his best to shut down the Titans' interior run game. Run defense against Henry is an 11-man effort, but it all starts in the middle. Hankins has 22 run stops -- meaning he shuts down a run at two yards or fewer -- which ranks in the NFL’s top 10.

The 27-year-old likes these types of challenges and must do his part well to make life hard on Tennessee’s stout run game.

RT Brandon Parker

Trent Brown might be the best right tackle in football. Not having him against Tennessee is a huge deal. The possibility of him missing extended time with a pectoral injury is a scary proposition for the Raiders' running game.

Brandon Parker is charged with mitigating the impact of Brown’s absence. It’s a safe bet he’ll often have tight-end help and a running back ready behind him until he proves a better pass protector that his rookie season.

David Sharpe fared well when Brown has missed time before, but the Raiders are going with Parker in this instance. The North Carolina A&T product gained weight and strength this offseason and has learned how to play nastier football from Brown. He must apply those lessons and be as close to perfect as possible in this one.

LB Marquel Lee

The Wake Forest alum hasn’t played since Week 3, when he injured his ankle and landed on IR. He was eligible to return last week but formally joined the 53-man roster this week in a game made for bigger, stronger linebackers. Count Lee in that class.

Lee and newcomer Preston Brown should see time here and must play solid run defense with Henry realistically busting through the line with regularity.

The Raiders must also deploy their linebackers well to maximize each player’s strengths, though Lee could jump back into a heavy workload in what should be a physical game. He needs to be a sure tackler both against Henry and pass-catchers who come into his area.

[RELATED: Raiders campaigning for Jacobs as rookie of the year]

WR Tyrell Williams

Jon Gruden said he’s going to shake things up and give new guys opportunities. That could certainly happen in the receiver corps, with Keelan Doss and Marcell Ateman possibly in line for more action. That shouldn’t eliminate Williams from the game plan where, frankly, he must be better.

Williams has dropped some key passes this season, but he has the talent to get open and warrant targets. The 27-year-old can’t leave this game up to Waller and the young guys. He has to assert himself and make big plays here to show his worth.

You can argue if Williams is a true No. 1 receiver or not, but that’s irrelevant to this particular game. This is one where he has to show up. He has to perform and make the most of the targets received.

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

The Raiders took their entire football operation down south this time last year to coach the Senior Bowl’s North squad.

That’s a luxury afforded to terrible teams from the NFL season that just concluded, and the 4-12 Raiders certainly were one. The provided an up-close look at some of the NFL draft’s finest prospects available throughout the selection process.

The Raiders got to see how players work in practice and pay attention in meetings, with an opportunity to swap squads – the 49ers coached the South – on the practice week’s final day.

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock got a great evaluation of every Senior Bowl prospect.

That week in Mobile, Ala., turned out to be an information gold mine. They learned to love a lot of those prospects and capitalized on opportunities to acquire them in the NFL draft or shortly after.

The Raiders drafted four Senior Bowl participants and signed three more after the amateur selection process.

“Coaching and being there really helped us a lot,” general manager Mike Mayock said after the NFL draft. “It really is a big deal to be involved in that game.”

The Raiders certainly hope this Senior Bowl week bears fruit, albeit with a lot less access to the prospects. They’ll send a slightly smaller contingent to this important evaluation week, though the Silver and Black still will canvas this group from stands over the sidelines. Practices start Tuesday, beginning a three-day stretch that’s more important than the All-Star Game itself.

Last year’s close-up look ended up putting several participants in silver and black.

The Raiders got Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram in the first round, LSU tight end Foster Moreau and Houston cornerback Isaiah Johnson in the fourth and Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow in the fifth. Then, they signed Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold, Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney and UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss as undrafted free agents.

Everyone save Coney spent most of the year on the 53-man roster and many of them made a major impact on the 2019 Raiders.

Those guys should be an even greater part of the 2020 squad, with Abram expected to rejoin the starting lineup after he underwent season-ending shoulder after Week 1, and optimism is high after what was essentially a lost season for Johnson after he suffered a preseason facial fracture.

Renfrow developed into a major player, and even Ingold became a reliable blocker and short-yardage back. Moreau was a touchdown machine in his first season, forming a promising tight-end duo with breakout star Darren Waller.

The Raiders preferred Senior Bowl participants last year, and this practice week is something vital to pre-NFL draft evaluation. The Raiders have five selections in the top 92, broken down into two first-round picks and three more in the third down.

[RELATED: Raiders' Gruden, Mayock at East-West Shrine Bowl practice]

Last year the Raiders favored players from either championship college programs or Senior Bowl participants, with rare exceptions. There’s no telling if that’ll be the case again this year, but Senior Bowl game and practice film is a vital piece of the evaluation process.

“Everybody will tell you they look at the Senior Bowl practice tape, the Senior Bowl game film over and over and over,” Gruden said last year. “You watch the matchups over and over and over.

“I remember doing it with [late Raiders owner/GM Al Davis]. He would put the Senior Bowl on for the 44th time and I would say, ‘how many more times are we going to watch that game?’ There’s tremendous value in it. It’s a great tool and provides great matchups you would never see if you didn’t come here.”

Tom Brady says he's 'open-minded' about uncertain future with Patriots

Tom Brady says he's 'open-minded' about uncertain future with Patriots

When you think about the New England Patriots, you don't see Steve Grogan, you picture Tom Brady. Aside from six Super Bowl rings for Brady and a trophy case full of accolades and records, there could be one big difference between the two quarterbacks. 

Grogan was a late-round draft pick who spent his entire 16-year career as a Patriots QB. Brady famously was a late-round draft pick who has spent his entire 20-year career as a Pats QB. But that could change. 

With rumors swirling that Brady might move on from New England this offseason, the 42-year-old addressed his future in his weekly interview with Westwood One Sports Radio on Sunday. 

"It's only been a couple weeks and I've had a lot of time with my family the last couple weeks and just been decompressing from the season," Brady said. "I've said earlier I'm open-minded about the process, and at the same time I love playing football and I want to continue to play and do a great job. I'm looking forward to what's ahead.

"Whatever the future may bring, I'll embrace it with open arms."

Brady is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career on March 18. The Athletic's Jay Glazer recently called the Raiders going after Brady with their move to Las Vegas a "no-brainer." And Brady was spotted in Sin City on Saturday night talking to none other than Raiders owner Mark Davis at UFC 246. 

The Las Vegas Review-Journal's Adam Hill spoke with UFC president Dana White -- who's a friend of Brady -- Saturday night after the fights, and White said a Raiders-Brady pairing absolutely "has legs." 

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is set to make $18.9 million next season, but the Raiders would save $16.5 million and take a cap hit of just $5 million if they trade or release Carr prior to June 1. 

[RELATED: Brady offers Jimmy G advice before NFC Championship Game]

Brady wouldn't come cheap, even at his age, though he certainly would create an insane amount of buzz and sell boatloads of tickets in the Silver and Black's first season in Las Vegas. Raider fans might also finally have reason to forget about the Tuck Rule, 18 years after the fact. 

Buckle up, things could get interesting. This is Las Vegas, after all.