Raiders Training Camp Primer: Special Teams

With NFL training camp about to begin, let’s see what positions on the Las Vegas Raiders roster might be up for grabs.

Back in May, I looked at who might make the roster on special teams. However, the team has since made additions and subtractions to the roster, and COVID-19 has drastically altered training camps. This article will aim to get further into nitty-gritty of the fiercest position battles on special teams.

No Contest

Punter A.J. Cole had a phenomenal rookie season in which he averaged 46 yards per punt. He is totally safe. So much so that the Raiders do not appear to even be bringing another punter into camp. If Cole does start to struggle or gets hurt, then we can all start clamoring for the team to bring back Marquette King.

Faux Competition

At long snapper, Trent Sieg should be safe. He has been solid the last two seasons, and didn’t commit a lot of mistakes, if any at all. Like I said in the spring, this is a position where teams really like continuity. They typically do not want to make a change unless they have to. However, the team did sign Ohio State long snapper, Liam McCullough as an undrafted free agent. He could just be a camp body, since the position does require a fair amount of running. That being said, when the Raiders re-signed Sieg in March, they only gave him a one-year deal. Maybe there is a real competition here, but I would be surprised if Sieg loses the job unless he gets hurt.

Related: Raiders Training Camp: The Running Game Is in Excellent Shape Heading into the 2020 Season

New Kicker on the Block

Another undrafted free agent could have a more realistic shot at making the team. Utah State kicker Dominik Eberle was clearly brought in to compete with incumbent Daniel Carlson. The latter had a rough sophomore campaign after a strong debut season. He struggled from long range and missed two extra points. As I said in May, the two kickers have been about equal statistically over the past two seasons. Aside from extra points, there is not a whole lot of difference in difficulty from college to the NFL. One could argue that the elder Carlson should be further along, and that the equality of their numbers favors the younger Eberle.

Two months ago, I predicted that the rookie would end up winning the job. I am not so sure about that anymore. COVID-19 has severely altered this offseason, to the point where it is now affecting training camps. Without being able to play any preseason games, the coaching staff cannot watch Eberle kick in a true game situation. That will make it really difficult to pull the trigger on making a change. Also, he should be pretty easy to stash on the practice squad.

This is the route that I see the Raiders taking at this point. The team has done this before with kickers and punters. When deciding what to do with aging veterans, Lechler and Janikowski, they kept King and Giorgio Tavecchio on the practice squad. In all likelihood, the team rolls with Carlson to start the season but keeps Eberle waiting in the wings.

Related: Raiders 2020 Draft Strategy Is Proving to Be Brilliant

Who Will Return Punts/Kicks?

Last season, the Raiders ranked 17th in the league in yards per punt return and 11th in yards per kick return. Also, the team did not have a single punt or kick return touchdown. It is safe to say that there is significant room for improvement in the return game. The return specialists from last year, Trevor Davis and Dwayne Harris, are both gone. Looking at the other guys that had returns last year, there is not much to inspire confidence. Jalen Richard recorded a putrid 3.5 yards per punt return, and averaged the team’s lowest yards per kick return (20.9).

Also, he has been known to have ball security issues. Hunter Renfrow was solid returning punts. However, he is not much of a home run threat. Also, many Raiders fans, myself included, fear for his life every time he lines up to return a punt. Keisean Nixon returned a handful of kicks and was okay, but he might not even make the team this year.

Luckily, the Raiders added a lot of speed this offseason. In the draft, they selected Henry Ruggs III out of Alabama and Lynn Bowden Jr. out of Kentucky. The team also signed Devontae Booker in free agency. Ruggs was a solid kick returner college, but I doubt the Raiders are going to use him that way. They lack the depth at receiver that the Crimson Tide had last year. Before moving to quarterback, Bowden was a prolific returner for Kentucky. He could end up returning both punts and kicks for the Raiders. Booker returned a lot of kicks for the Denver Broncos over the last three years. That could be his ticket onto the final roster.

Ultimately, I think that Bowden will be the punt returner. In 2018, he took two of his five punt returns to the house. His role as a receiving back makes him exactly the kind of player coaches are comfortable with playing at such a dangerous position. The only potential issue could be if he proves to be too valuable on offense. In that case, Richard will probably see a diminished role on offense. This would make him more, for lack of a better term, “expendable,” and lead to him returning punts instead of Bowden.

One of those two guys that I just mentioned should be one of the two kick returners. The other one should be one of two players fighting to make the roster. It could be Booker, but that would mean the team would be keeping four running backs and a fullback. That seems unlikely, but not unfathomable. The other option is Rico Gafford returned some kicks during his college days at Wyoming. He has yet to do so in the NFL, but he certainly has the speed for it.

The issue is whether or not the coaching staff trusts such a raw player. One sign that Gruden’s trust in him is growing could be the uptick in Gafford’s usage on offense towards the end of last season. However, the influx of new receivers this offseason could make it difficult for him to make the team. At the end of the day, Gafford is simply too fast to cut, and he should make the team as a kick returner who can also be a gunner, a sixth receiver, and an emergency defensive back.

Bottom Line

Last season, the Raiders were average at best on special teams. There is room for improvement across the board. Perennial contenders like the Patriots pride themselves on being great in that phase of the game. If the Raiders want start contending for championships, they need to get more out of their special teams unit. The additions made this offseason indicate that Gruden and Mayock understand this as well.

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All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and Sports-Reference

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