Raiders camp battles: Tight End

There are currently seven tight ends on the Oakland Raiders roster. Teams rarely carry more than three into the regular season, so this figures to be one of the most competitive areas in training camp. So who’s likely to come out on top of the Raiders tight end position battle?

The big offseason signing

The Raiders signed Jared Cook to a two-year contract paying an average of $5.2 million a season. Whilst that isn’t elite money for a tight end, it’s inside the top 20 according to Over The Cap. So, that’s a pretty clear indication that Cook will be the starter.

Cook looked strong in his one year with the Green Bay Packers, really excelling in the playoffs. His ridiculous sideline catch against Dallas remains a season highlight and he offers the prospect of a genuine top-tier tight end. The Raiders haven’t had anything close to an elite tight end for a long time. With the exception of Zach Miller in 2010, the last Raider tight end to make the Pro Bowl was the great Todd Christensen, in 1987.

The Raiders have suffered through a drought at the position, but we shouldn’t place too much on the shoulders of Cook. He’s a good player, but prior to his season with the Packers, he wasn’t anywhere near elite status. Remember that the Rams let him walk, neither his effort nor hands good enough to make him a consistently great player.

The return from injury

All that said, Cook will make the team and certainly improves the tight end position for the Raiders. As does Lee Smith who’s returning from a season-ending injury, Smith should also be a lock to make the team. A tough blocker with surprisingly soft hands, Smith was the starting tight end last year before his injury.

Whilst he lacks the pace and explosive play ability to be a true difference-maker over the middle, that’s not what the Raiders need him to do. He’s primarily a blocking tight end former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave wasn’t running any six linemen packages last year until Smith got hurt, which is a  testament to Smith’s skill in the trenches. He’s spoken openly about how much he likes blocking and his proficiency here will see him make the team with ease.

The battle for the final spot: Clive Walford

If the Raiders act as expected and carry just three tight ends into the season that leaves just one spot left on the roster. You would think that Clive Walford’s the favorite to claim that spot, but two other players might have a say in that.

Selected in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft, Walford had a standout college career at the University of Miami. The second tight end selected in the draft, he had high expectations coming into the season. However, after a reasonable rookie season, Walford hurt his knee in an ATV accident. He hasn’t looked the same since and didn’t produce his best in 2016. Reggie McKenzie himself said that Walford “wasn’t the same player last year” and the signing of Cook certainly suggests McKenzie isn’t convinced in Walford.

The question is whether Walford will show enough in camp to suggest he still has what it takes. Walford certainly has the head start here, and it would be a surprise for him not to make the roster, but there are one or two players who might have a chance of catching him.

Gabe Holmes and Pharaoh Brown

Gabe Holmes has been on the Raiders roster bubble for the last two seasons. He’s moved between the practice squad and the active roster, finally getting a shot at making the team following Smith’s injury last year.

Unfortunately, Holmes himself was injured and placed on IR, so he never got a chance to prove himself. But McKenzie has kept him around for the last two years and so it’s likely he sees something he likes in Holmes. A good camp might give him a chance of making the team.

However, another kid who could deliver a surprise is the undrafted rookie from Oregeon, Pharaoh Brown. Brown is a senior, who actually played with Marcus Mariota during his time with the Ducks, so he has a lot of collegiate experience. His problem is recovery from a serious leg injury suffered in 2014. The injury clearly affected his explosiveness and he didn’t seem quite the same player in his final college season.

That said, it’s not uncommon to take a year or more to recover from a serious injury. And Brown is a physical specimen, weighing in at 6’6″ and 240lbs. He bench pressed 24 reps at the combine, leading all tight ends, and impressed scouts with his all-around conditioning. NFL Draft Scout had him rated as the best tight end in the PAC 10 last year, and Pro Football Focus gives his NFL player comparison as Jared Cook. Yep, the same Jared Cook that Reggie McKenzie is willing to commit $5 million a year to.

Possible outcome

Walford’s surely still the favourite for the final tight end roster spot, but watch out for Brown during camp. He’s a seriously driven player with a point to prove. His strength will mean he should be able to become an asset in the run game, and if he can polish off his route running he could pull off a surprise.

Ryan O’Malley and Cooper Helfet are also both on the roster. Despite O’Malley making the active roster for one game last year, he didn’t see any action. Helfet was on the Seahawks practice squad last year. Expect both of these guys to be camp bodies competing for a place on the practice squad.

Final Prediction

Pharaoh Brown will have a strong camp putting the Raiders in a difficult position. They won’t want to cut Walford, so they might make the decision to carry four tight ends on their active roster: Cook, Smith, Walford and Brown.

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