Raiders

Raiders position battles to watch as NFL training camp approaches

Raiders

While the NFL and the Players Association have yet to agree on return-to-play terms, training camp is expected to begin in two weeks.

The Raiders will enter their first Las Vegas training camp with an improved roster that was injected with talent during the offseason. Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock ripped the roster down to the studs and now have built a roster filled with young talent that is ready to make a leap in 2020.

Entering training camp, the Raiders will have fewer position battles then they have in recent years. That's a good thing, a sign that the Silver and Black are entering the next phase of the rebuild under Gruden.

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There still will be a couple of battles in camp, though. Here are four to watch.

Cornerback

Contenders: Prince Amukamara, Damon Arnette, Isaiah Johnson, Amik Robertson, Nevin Lawson
Favorite: Amukamara

Trayvon Mullen is entrenched as the starter at one cornerback position. Write it in permanent ink.

The spot opposite him is up for grabs. The Raiders drafted Damon Arnette with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2020 draft. He's a physical, press-man corner with a chip on his shoulder and a drive to be great. Arnette returned for his senior season at Ohio State hoping to change his legacy at the storied program and did just that. He was one of the top cornerbacks in the country despite playing the entire season with a broken hand. Now fully healthy and having spent a summer hearing the Raiders reached in selecting him that high, Arnette will be motivated to prove he's a long-term solution opposite Mullen.

 

Arnette is talented, no doubt. He and Mullen should be the Raiders' future at cornerback. But with no OTAs and no minicamp, the rookie will be behind in training camp. The Raiders signed Amukamara late in free agency, giving them a veteran option should Arnette need time to fully learn the defense and the NFL game. In Amukamara, the Raiders signed a cornerback who was the fifth-best cornerback in man coverage last season, per Pro Football Focus. He's a steady, veteran corner who the Raiders can plugin on one side and not worry about it.

I expect Arnette to follow a similar track as Mullen did a season ago. He'll sit behind Amukamara initially, but don't be surprised if he's starting come Week 7.

Defensive End

Contenders: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Carl Nassib
Favorites: Crosby, Ferrell

The Raiders saw their pass rush improve a tick in 2019, but they need more out of that unit in 2020. That's why they gave Nassib a hefty chunk of change to join Crosby, fresh off a 10-sack season, and Ferrell. All three of these guys will play and play a lot.

Crosby will be in there on third down, with his explosiveness off the edge needed to disrupt offenses on that crucial down. Ferrell, the 2019 No. 4 overall pick, promised to return a new player after a disappointing rookie season in which he lost weight while battling an illness midseason. He has been grinding all offseason, working hard with DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead to arrive in pristine shape for camp.

Ferrell has all the tools to be a good NFL pass rusher. Maybe he isn't a 15-sack guy, but an 8- or 9-sack guy. That's more than OK. Ferrell and Nassib are better run defenders than Crosby, so perhaps they'll play more on the early downs. My hunch is Gruden will give Ferrell and Crosby a leg up to start, but Nassib can easily take a starting role if they slip up.

No matter, all three guys will play significant snaps in 2020.

Defensive Tackle

Contenders: Maliek Collins, Johnathan Hankins, Maurice Hurst
Favorites: Collins, Hankins

The Raiders need more of an interior pass rush this season, Push up the middle will help Ferrell, Crosby and Nassib clean up on the edge.

Gruden and Mayock brought in Collins on a one-year deal. The 25-year-old excels at beating double teams and causing havoc in the backfield. While he doesn't always record the sack himself, Collins' ability to create pressure and beat double teams is something the Raiders missed last season. Expect him to be on the field a lot in both the base and nickel defenses.

 

While Collins excels as a pass rusher, he isn't a great run defender. That leads me to believe Hankins, who is a solid run defender, will start next to Collins in the base. Don't discount Hurst, though. The Michigan product had a solid 2019 season that didn't get a lot of attention because he didn't have any help next to him.

For all the hype about Collins, Hurst had a better pass-rush grade than Collins, per Pro Football Focus. Hurst was the 29th ranked interior defensive lineman in the NFL last season. Collins clocked in at 68 and Hankins at 75.

To show stats and numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, P.J. Hall was No. 40 and Gruden has openly challenged him to get better this offseason.

Collins, Hurst and Hankins all will play a ton of snaps in 2020, but it will be intriguing to see how the playing time shakes out.

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Wide Receiver No. 4

Contenders: Nelson Agholor, Bryan Edwards, Zay Jones, Keelan Doss, Marcell Ateman, Rico Gafford
Favorite: Agholor

The Raiders will open the season with Henry Ruggs manning the Z, Tyrell Williams at X and Hunter Renfrow in the slot. That we know. The fourth wide receiver spot is up for grabs.

Edwards is a roster lock, and he has all the talent to become a favored target of Derek Carr. But like Arnette, the lack of OTAs and minicamp could initially hurt his ability to earn this role. Jones has been working hard with Carr in Las Vegas. He was a zero after coming over in a midseason trade in 2019, but with a full offseason to work with Carrperhaps Jones' talent finally will flourish.

My money is on Agholor. He was a first-round draft pick who starred at USC. Agholor has the speed to stretch the field deep and should benefit from the change of scenery. He also was a key contributor on a Philadelphia Eagles team that won the Super Bowl. The Raiders don't have a lot of guys with Super Bowl pedigree on the roster.

But drops have been an issue for Agholor. If he brings the butterfingers to camp, Carr could quickly turn away from him and that will be all she wrote.

The Raiders felt the need to overhaul the receiving corps because Jones, Doss, Ateman and Gafford couldn't get it done last season. That leads me to think Agholor will enter with a leg up and Edwards will have the chance to beat him out. I won't count out Jones, but he faces an uphill battle to win the job.