The Oakland Raiders season officially kicks off Friday night. Unfortunately, it’s preseason. Fortunately, there are still plenty of things to watch.
It seems like this every year, but this truly is one of the most interesting Raiders teams in years. For starters, there is a lot of young talent. Unlike past years, there is also plenty of veteran talent that isn’t over 30.
While all eyes will be on first-round pick Amari Cooper, there are at least a half-dozen other players Raiders fans should keep a close eye on during the game.
He hasn’t been able to stay healthy, nor has he been particularly awesome when he is healthy, but cornerback D.J. Hayden still has a lot of talent. General manager Reggie McKenzie will take his lumps if Hayden doesn’t pan out this year, but more importantly the Raiders will also be dangerously thin at cornerback.
The Raiders need Hayden to solid, even if he doesn’t live up to the potential he had coming out of the University of Houston. Even if he ends up as the No. 3 cornerback, he’s still essentially a starter with defenses using the nickel defense almost 70 percent of the time last season.
Hayden’s biggest problem appears to be that he’s reacting too slowly, which could improve with more experience. The preseason is a good time for Hayden to gain that experience before the Raiders need to rely on him. Don’t be surprised if the Raiders give him extended playing time for that reason.
In many ways, Keith McGill is the anti-Hayden. He’s long and a little stiff in the hips, but there is room for both types on the Raiders and in the NFL. McGill didn’t see much action as a rookie, but he made a big enough impression that the Raiders didn’t feel the need to bring in another cornerback this offseason. That means the Raiders expected McGill to at least be the nickel cornerback.
The Raiders really doubled down at cornerback this offseason as they need Hayden and McGill to both be solid contributors. If McGill can build on his start to training camp, which by most observations has been a net positive, he has a chance to start opposite T.J. Carrie. If McGill plays well, it could soften the sting if Hayden isn’t anything more than a No. 3 cornerback.
As a veteran starter, he might not play extensively, but the Raiders could sure use some highlight plays from one of their top additions in free agency. A lot of eyebrows were raised when the Raiders gave Allen a contract befit a star safety, so fans will be expecting impact plays from him.
Can you tell that one of the biggest question marks on the team is the secondary?
Like D.J. Hayden from the same draft class, right tackle Menelik Watson needs to become a solid contributor in 2015. He is loosely hanging on to the starting job at right tackle over veteran Austin Howard, but his preseason performance will go a long way in determining if he holds onto it.
The Raiders have a solid line from left tackle to center, but the right side needs to prove they won’t be a problem this season at the very least. Offensive line coach Mike Tice will rotate through a few players at right guard, but right tackle is Watson’s spot to lose.
The other signing that raised eyebrows this offseason was the Raiders picking up linebacker Curtis Lofton. The veteran may be the starter at middle linebacker, but he’s clearly not a long-term answer. For that reason alone, rookie middle linebacker Ben Heeney is worth keeping an eye on Friday night.
Heeney has also made his share of plays during training camp and will see extended playing time. Heeney didn’t have elite measurables, but he was a top performer in college. If he keeps making plays against backups, the Raiders may have to consider getting him some snaps against starters to see if he can keep it up.