The Raiders' starting lineup is largely set heading towards training camp. That’s a relatively new phenomenon after years with lackluster talent left jobs open and fingers crossed young players would exceed expectations.
Quality exists at most starting spots, with one dominant force on top. This training camp will host a few key battles, including the nickel corner position.
That’s where we begin Saturday’s Raiders mailbag, with questions submitted via my Facebook page (@bairCSN):
Who do you think has the edge at slot corner Carrie or Hayden? (Riley Alltop)
Sean Smith and David Amerson seem set to start at outside cornerback, and should stay there in the nickel package.
DJ Hayden spent significant time working as the first-team slot cornerback during the offseason program, far more than other cornerback options. Head coach Jack Del Rio praised Hayden’s work this spring, saying he was excited about the former first-round pick’s development.
The Raiders declined to pick up his fifth-year option, making this a contract year for the University of Houston product still trying to gain traction at this level. The Raiders will give him an opportunity to earn a job, something he hasn’t done yet. He was given one before, but fell down the depth chart and was behind others to close out last year.
TJ Carrie, who started 14 games last year, is fighting for significant snaps as well. He has the physicality preferred in the slot, and experience operating in that unique role. He’ll have to take control of the No. 3 job over Hayden and Neiko Thorpe, who will re-join the fray after missing the OTAs and minicamp with injury.
This could be a battle waged all preseason for a key spot in a revamped secondary.
Who will win the KR/PR jobs? (Chris Parsley)
Special teams coordinator Brad Seely made it clear during minicamp that incumbents retain pole position in the quest to return kicks and punts. That makes Taiwan Jones and TJ Carrie your leaders heading into training camp.
There are other options, however, to be examined during the preseason. One is undrafted receiver/return man Joe Hansley, an undrafted free agent who impressed during the offseason program. Fifth-round running back DeAndre Washington is experienced and willing returning kicks. Jaydon Mickens and Antonio Hamilton are also prospects for key special teams spots.
The Raiders haven’t had fearsome returners in some time despite efforts to fortify that aspect of special teams, and while new guys are getting a shot, it’s highly likely Jones and Carrie get another crack at major return roles.
I was a bit surprised at the Jihad Ward pick but this guy looks like a freak of nature. Is it too soon to get on the hype train? (Thaddeus Hudson)
The Raiders have left fans scratching heads after their last two second-round picks, using selections on physically-gifted defensive linemen without much college production. Last year they took Mario Edwards Jr. a draft pick that looks pretty smart with Edwards healthy and dangerous attacking inside and out.
Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward could follow Edward’s path, and certainly looked good in the offseason program. A word of caution: These OTAs were conducted without pads or heavy contact. While Ward looked surprisingly agile for a man so large, true football must be played to fully evaluate Ward.
He has been running with the first team and should get a real opportunity to contribute at least on a rotational basis with Edwards Jr. and Denico Autry at the defensive end spot flanked by edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
Is it 9 wins or bust this year for JDR? (Colin Mehigan)
The Raiders are entering new territory after playing four wins better in 2015 and improving the roster with productive offseason. After a decade plus spent at 8-8 or worse, .500 is a new baseline for success. Expectations are far higher, and many national pundits consider the Raiders realistic contenders to win the AFC West.
Del Rio should be comfortable in the captain’s chair after changing the culture in his first season, but the pressure is on to keep the Raiders on a winning track. He has the talent required to do so, armed with a hulking offensive line, firepower at the skill spots and a defense with sharp fangs. The Raiders have the talent required to win nine games. Can they perform well in the clutch and close out games they should win. That will be key to reaching lofty goals while giving fans something to cheer.