The usual suspects are getting all the hype but there are three key players no one’s talking about
The Oakland Raiders have one of the more star-studded NFL rosters heading into 2017. Last year, the Raiders had 7 Pro Bowl nominations turning heads around the league with elite talent on both sides of the ball.
General manager Reggie McKenzie shuffled the roster thru various personnel transactions during the off-season which has resulted in the most competitive camp roster depth in nearly 15 years. The big names dominate the headlines, but what players are not being talked about that can fill critical roles on this team?
T.J. CarrieEmbed from Getty Images
Few may consider T.J. Carrie the most versatile defensive back on the roster, but he has lined up at right, left and the slot as well as some safety. Carrie has also found work on the field as a punt and kickoff returner.
Since being drafted as a 7th round pick in 2014, T.J. has started 21 games, notching 98 tackles and defending 21 passes with 3 interceptions. Considering that Raiders added two rookies to their secondary in Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, their respective impact to contribute right away might take some developmental time from the staff.
Moreover, starting cornerback Sean Smith is an expensive player that’s aging and struggled in 2016. With elite players like Derek Carr and Khalil Mack due big paydays soon, Carrie would be a reliable option at cornerback if Reggie McKenzie wanted to cut Sean Smith. This leaves every opportunity for T.J. to ease transitions and supplant depth for any looming injuries while helping on special teams. When you are limited to 53 players on your roster, a versatile and capable starter like Carrie, provides excellent depth at a minimal contractual cost.
Denico AutryEmbed from Getty Images
The Raiders are looking to improve upon the pass rush as they were dead last in the NFL in sacking the opposing quarterback in 2016. The pass rush was led by Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack and a very productive Bruce Irvin, although many don’t know that Autry was third on the team in sacks with 3 himself, while only starting in 7 games.
Consequently, Autry recorded 3 sacks as well as a safety in his 2015 campaign in only 8 starts, revealing his potential on limited opportunities. Perhaps an increased role in 2017 could take advantage of his ability to play both DE/DT and emerge. He’ll indeed have a chance due to his competition: Drafted rookie Eddie Vanderdoes, an inconsistent Justin Ellis, and an injury prone Mario Edwards. The interior defense demands production and Autry has been building a quiet case the last two seasons.
Connor CookEmbed from Getty Images
With “Raider Nation” gushing over star quarterback Derek Carr’s breakout year 3, the man behind the man, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, continues to groom his game. Cook’s 2016 rookie campaign changed dramatically after Derek Carr went down on Christmas Eve versus the Indianapolis Colts.
Cook eventually took the reigns from struggling former second-string option, Matt McGloin. He even made NFL history when he became the first ever rookie quarterback to make his first start on the road in a playoff game; it was brutal. Carr has since made a full recovery from his injury and looks to continue shattering Raiders passing records and lead a championship run.
The last two Super Bowl teams were able to maintain success when their star quarterbacks were unable to play: Brock Osweiler stepping in for injured Peyton Manning in 2015 and the combination of Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett while Tom Brady was suspended in 2016. This is critical proof of the importance to maximize Cook’s camp snaps and pre-season game development to ensure they have a capable option in an emergent situation. If Cook can show the team enough, I could see the current third-string option, EJ Manuel not making the 53 man final roster cuts. This could potentially allow the luxury to balance an extra opening on the roster.