ALAMEDA – Lee Smith was a key cog in this Raiders offense. The hulking tight end is a decent receiver but considers himself an honorary offensive lineman, an important piece of the team’s protection.
Losing him to a season-ending ankle injury was a significant blow, one that caused the Raiders to adjust on the fly. They weren’t going to put unqualified options on the field just because it says tight end on their football card. Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford can block, but are primarily receiving options.
The Raiders got creative, and added another offensive lineman to their jumbo package. Vadal Alexander filled that role initially, though undrafted rookie Denver Kirkland has made it his own. He’s technically an eligible receiver and a tight end, but blocks like a tackle for the run and pass.
The package worked extremely well against Denver, with an extra offensive lineman helping block for the run or double team or bracket star Broncos edge rusher Von Miller. Kirkland played 42 snaps against the Broncos, 48 percent of all offensive snaps as the Raiders rushed 43 times for 218 yards and three touchdowns.
They used a straight forward rushing attack, often with a fullback in the game, to ensure speedy ball carriers reached the second level.
The Raiders have used extra offensive linemen before, but it’s become a more regular occurrence without Smith available.
“We’re trying to fill in for Lee, you know?” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “A big guy that gives us the ability to run the ball, that can pass block and can occasionally sneak out and be a part of a route. You know, he’s not going to be a big part of the route tree, but we do have plays designed, those guys get out and catch the ball and run over a little guy. So, they love that part. They love that and what they’re really good at is the blocking part and being physical. So, I think it just makes us physical.”
That’s a desired element among within a Raiders offense hoping to establish a stout running game. Del Rio wants to run well even when the opposition knows what’s coming, making solid protection a must from the five standard linemen all the way out to the receivers.
Kirkland is the new key cog in the protection effort.
“Denver is been a big, physical guy, tough guy,” Del Rio said. “We were drawn to him in camp, thought there were some things that were with developing and that development, obviously, has been accelerated a little bit with him being on the field as much as he is now.”
Kirkland was an early entrant into the NFL Draft who wasn’t taken. The Arkansas alum was still a popular commodity, with the Raiders pitching to sign him as an undrafted player before the selection process ended.
“They were calling during the draft, and I was up for it,” Kirkland said. “Other teams were calling me, but I have made my mind up. I talked to my mom for a quick 30 minutes, and we knew then that we were going to the Raiders.”
It was the smart choice. Coaches were clearly taken by Kirkland during the preseason, where he was versatile enough to play multiple spots. He ended up on the practice squad, mostly due to the talented depth on the Raiders offensive line.
He was promoted before Week 4 due to injuries at right tackle, but didn’t play until he was asked to step up with Smith out. Now, Kirkland appears a fixture as an extra blocker playing tight end.
Whether he leaks out as a pass-catcher or not remains a mystery. Donald Penn has caught a touchdown pass this year and Kirkland says he would be a reliable receiver if called upon.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got great hands,” Kirkland said with a smile. “That would be a great moment for me.”