Yeah, it may be too early to give any kind of real indication of what the Raiders have in their rookie class. But there is still something to be gleaned from what we have seen so far. Consider that these grades are based solely on what we have seen up to this point. This is not meant to be any kind of indictment of how I predict they will eventually pan out. These grades will no doubt go up or down for every one of these guys in the coming games and seasons. Also I take draft position into consideration when grading each rookie. And with that out of the way, here is how I see the rookie’s grading out through nine games this season:
One could say that McClain is already an upgrade over former stalwart Raider middle linebacker, Kirk Morrison. Well, he is and he isn’t. Right from the start, he does some things better than Morrison. The main difference is McClain’s recognition of the screen. And that is a big one because it has plagued the Raider defense for that past few years. Other than that, however, he has some similar issues with getting off of blocks and being in the right position to make the play. But considering he is just a rookie and Morrison had five seasons as a starter and still had those issues, McClain gets credit for that. He should get better from here. But he was the odds on favorite to be the NFL defensive rookie of the year when he was drafted out of Alabama. Now just over half way through the season, he has almost no chance. Although that is partially because Ndamukong Suh has come as advertised and is the odds on favorite.
When the Raiders drafted Houston out of Texas in the 2nd round, there were many who thought he was a guy who could easily have gone in the first round. It was a great pick for a team that had made some questionable ones in the recent past. He played defensive tackle for the Longhorns and the Raiders, having a pourous run defense, needed his services in that department. But Tom Cable immediately made his intentions clear in moving Houston to defensive end as opposed to playing him at DT. Houston has started every game at defensive end and has struggled. Teams have keyed on running through the right guard/tackle gap because they have had success in blocking Houston or catching him overpursuing. Overall the Raider run defense is the best it has been in perhaps a decade. But that is thanks to the standout play of Matt Shaughnessy and Richard Seymour along the line and new strong side linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. Houston has a lot of work to do on his technique and lane discipline at this point.
He struggled early in the season and there were a number of factors involved. First off, he played at small Hillsdale College and had only faced top tier talent once in his entire life; when he played in the Texas vs the World game following his senior season. Second, he is a rookie who has to catch up to the speed of NFL edge rushers– a transition every rookie tackle must grow into. And lastly, but most importantly, coach Cable was testing him out at center through much of training camp which only stood to hamper his development as an NFL offensive tackle. He began the season starting at center after having played just one preseason at the position for the Raiders. He understandably had some mishaps. Soon Cable realized what the rest of us could have told him from the start. That being you don’t start a rookie at a brand new position in a regular season game after just three quarters of experience in a preseason game.
Soon Samson Satele was put back in as the starter at center and Cable began cycling Veldheer in at left tackle with Mario Henderson. Yet again, Veldheer was making quite a few mistakes even in his limited time. But that was to be expected after the game of musical chairs Cable was playing with him. In the past few games, however, Veldheer has settled in as the starter at left tackle. In one game, he even played left tackle in the first half and then took over at center for Satele when he was hurt and had a nearly mistake free game. He was a highly recruited player out of highschool and opted to go to Hillsdale for academics. Those smarts have shown in his ability to learn two NFL positions in such a short time and to continue to improve at both positions. Not many people thought he would be the every week starter at left tackle so soon but here he is this third round pick from little HIllsdale college, doing just that.
Ah yes, the workout warrior with freakish size and speed that so many “experts” had the Raiders drooling over as the #8 overall pick. They couldn’t have been more wrong about his draft position. The Raiders did, however, take a flier on him in the fourth. It is not really much of a gamble to get a guy in the fourth round that some could see being taken as high as the first round by some team. This mammoth athlete was a starting left tackle for the University of Maryland and his film showed him manhandling defenders up and down the field on blocks. The Raiders saw a guy that could be their next starting right guard to replace the aging Cooper Carlisle. Or perhaps just be an upgrade. But while Carlisle continues to show his worth as a starting guard for the Raiders, Campbell has shown just how much he relied on brute strength and athletic prowess in college. His lack of technique showed immediately and from what little we have seen of him, it doesn’t look to have improved much. His biggest concern is weight distribution. Defensive tackles use him against himself. He pushes and they brush him by. He doesn’t push and they have their way with him. Until he can learn some sumo wrestling style weight distribution, he will simply be a freakish project.
If I had done this list last week, this would have an entirely different feel to it. As of week 8, he had a total of 37 yards on 4 catches. His most notable play was a dropped ball that he tipped in the air for an interception to end a terrible loss to the previously winless 49ers. He also had done nothing in the return game to go along with a fumble. But last week he showed ball skills that no one knew he had. The Raiders drafted him for his speed as a return man and hoped to get some receiving numbers out of him as well. Then last week he started out with a 94 yard return touchdown and finished with 6 catches for 148 yards. Three of those catches were utterly brilliant and critical to the Raiders beating the Chiefs in overtime. Talk about raising a grade. We will see if it this was an anomaly but for now, this fourth round pick gets credit for at least one Raider win. And in an NFL season, even a single win or loss is always a big deal. His performance earned him NFL Special Teams player of the week and rookie of the week honors for week 9.
‘Wal*Mac’ looked quite good in training camp initially and it appeared as if he might make a push at nickel back. But he went down with a hamstring injury in the preseason and is just recently getting back on the field. He saw his first action in the week 9 matchup against the Chiefs. He gave up a 19 yard catch to Dwayne Bowe and was credited with the tackle when he pushed Bowe out of bounds afterward. Not much can be taken from that.
Another guy who went down with an injury that has kept him out of games. He was a bit of a surprise pick out of Arizona State with the Raiders. He played primarily outside linebacker for the Sun Devils but the Raiders saw him as a reserve middle linebacker and special teams guy. He showed enough in preseason to make the team. Which is more than we can say for the Raiders sixth round pick last year Stryker Sulak.
‘J Wow’ has exceeded expectations as an early 7th rounder. Cable raved about him on several occasions in training camp and he has made some nice plays in limited action this season. He was forced into action opposite Stanford Routt when Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson were both out with injury and performed admirably. He hasn’t wowed anyone but he has shown potential at very least which is all you can hope for from a final round pick. In the Chiefs game he had a pass defended and a HUGE interception off a Mike Mitchell tipped pass defended in the endzone. If he hadn’t been in the right position to make the interception, the Chiefs would have had at least a field goal and that could have been the difference in the game.
The Raiders were full up at the safety position when they drafted Stevie Brown in the late 7th round. But they saw a versatile player who could at very least contribut in kick and punt coverage. In the preseason he was mr opportunity; catching interceptions or recovering fumbles in three of the four preseason games. He began the season the practice squad after he was released to the surprise of many fans. There was even some controversy surrounding his release that was never really substantiated. He was called up to the active roster early in the season for one game and then he was released immediately afterward and re-signed to the practice squad. Then three days later, he was re-signed to the active roster. All within a week’s time. He had proven he is a solid special teams player as a tackler as well as blocker and with the injury to Tyvon Branch last week, he saw some time at safety as well. He plays with passion and has a nose for the ball. I expect he will be moving into the safety rotation alongside Mike Mitchell very soon.
Overall rookie grade: C+