On the eve of the NFL New Year, the Raiders have already made significant additions to the roster. The receiving corps specifically has had a massive addition already and the Raiders are just getting started.
Many viewed the 2018 season as the opportunity for Derek Carr and Amari Cooper to take the next step and become a dominant offensive force. It only took a few weeks for that to fail, and the Raiders traded Cooper to the Cowboys for a first-round selection. A disaster of a season followed, and the receiving corps was a significant letdown for everyone involved. By the end of the season, the top three targets for Derek Carr were tight end Jared Cook, aging receiver Jordy Nelson, and running back Jalen Richard. Marcell Ateman had one game where he made an impression and then disappeared. Martavis Bryant ended up being suspended although there is a good chance he can return before the season begins.
Change is coming to the Raider receiving corps and it will come swiftly with a huge increase in expectations. There will be returning faces and they will be forced to step up if they want to be a part of the team long term. Let’s begin with those players first.
At the age of 33 Jordy Nelson was able to produce consistently enough to ensure his return to for the second year of his two year Raider contract. He did this by making clutch catches on short inward breaking routes and by continuing his dominance in the back shoulder fade game. He was the leading target for Carr amongst the receiving corps. At the end of the 2018 season, the Raider front office opted to accelerate his 2019 bonus and pay them in 2018. By doing this they ensured he would be back for 2019.
The role for Nelson probably will not change much, but his usage surely will. His value will be seen when the Raiders need a clutch catch by a bigger body receiver. The plan should be to get 3-5 balls to him every week when the offense desperately needs a play to be made. His future will be limited and he very well could retire after this season, but he has a chance to make an impact in 2019.
As a seventh round selection in the 2018 NFL draft, Ateman did not even make the week one 53 man roster. After nine games the Raiders brought him to the active roster and he stayed on it for the rest of the season. His best game came in his first week on the active roster against the Cardinals. In that game he caught four passes on five targets for 50 yards and made an impression on many fans. His lone touchdown came against the Chiefs in a losing effort.
The 24 year old is in a position to carve out a role for himself especially as Jordy Nelson’s time in the NFL comes to an end. A player like Ateman most likely will not develop into a star receiver, but he can become a solid third or fourth option that does certain things very well. There is an outside chance with the right usage that he could be a Marques Colston type, but if the Raiders bring in a wealth of talent this offseason that becomes unlikely.
This is the guy that most Raider fans love to hate. Although he went mostly unnoticed for the beginning of the season, Roberts ended his 2018 campaign with 45 receptions, 494 yards, and two touchdowns. He also was on the receiving end of one of the prettiest passes of Derek Carr’s career. Yes Roberts carries with him a 4.65 million dollar cap hit in the final year of his contract and can be cut with no dead cap hit, but he is the epitome of a Gruden Grinder.
Roberts is a scrappy player that will do anything he is asked to do including blocking both linebackers and defensive ends. His selfless attitude makes him a valuable component to have in a receiving corps because he will play special teams and do the things that top receivers will not do. Many fans may not like this, but Roberts has earned himself a place in the NFL and there is nothing wrong with having him on the backend of a roster.
The first major move of new General Manager Mike Mayock’s tenure was to acquire Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2019 third round pick and a 2019 fifth round pick. Part of the trade was also an increase in Brown’s average cap hit per season making him the highest paid wide receiver without adding any new years to his contract. Prior to the 2018 season Jon Gruden said he was going to make Amari Cooper the centerpiece of his offense and that ended up being a complete disaster. Maybe he will have that in Brown.
What makes this such a great move is the general similarities between the Raider offense and the Steelers offense. For most of the season they were the only two teams who used five personnel groupings five percent of snaps or more. By the end of the season they both fell to four. These offenses placed 32 and 31 in the NFL in play action usage. The similarities are there and that should limit the learning curve.
Tyrell Williams or AJ Green
Since the Combine there has been talks of the Raiders being interested in Charger free agent Tyrell Williams. The big bodied receiver spent four years with the Chargers as a second and third target and is now looking for a pay day. With Humphries landing nine million per season in free agency, Williams should probably settle around twelve million per season. This has been a spending spree for the Raiders and adding Williams would give them their Z receiver opposite of Brown.
Another option here is AJ Green. In his final year of his contract and coming off of an injury, the 30 year old may be looking for a change of scenery and the Bengals may be willing to part with him for a mid round pick. Similarly to Williams, Green could be the Z receiver that can take advantage of matchups provided to him by Antonio Brown. Either player would give the Raiders a solid 1-2 punch, but the combination of Brown and Green would draw some serious comparisons to Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.
Hakeem Butler or Andy Isabella
Here is a choice of skill sets. Butler was the most dominant player in the slot in all of college last season because he is a physical freak. Standing 6’5 and weighing over 220 pounds while running under a 4.5 forty yard dash at the Combine, Butler is a specimen. Not only did he dominate in the slot, he also is very good at the go/fade/back shoulder route tree which is a Carr favorite.
The flip side is Andy Isabella who racked up over 100 receptions in 2018 for the University of Massachusetts. He has serious wheels and can line up all over the field. The versatility Isabella goes unnoticed many times and many people only view him as a slot receiver. He and Brown could do some serious damage interchanging and working off each other with their incredible foot quickness.
Most likely the Raiders will go into the 2019 season with seven solid options at wide receiver and this will be Bryant’s opportunity to lock down a roster spot and potentially earn an extension. Nobody knows what really happened to earn him his suspension, but since it is likely to be lifted, it can be assumed he did not actually fail a drug test.
If this is the case then bringing him into camp and allowing him to fight for a spot with Roberts and Ateman is an ideal place for him. Bryant has all the talent in the world and if he has a solid season could get an opportunity to finally get his career back on track. There is no downside here for Gruden and Mayock.