The Raiders have been woefully thin at tight end for some time. Mychal Rivera was enlisted for extensive duty due to injury, skill and necessity with other options flaming out.
The 2013 sixth-round pick isn’t a complete package at this stage, with some blocking liabilities yet to be shored up. There were times last season where he was the only healthy tight end and was forced to play out of his element.
Odds are that won’t happen this year. The Raiders re-loaded at tight end, adding pieces through free agency and the NFL draft. While it’s early yet, last year’s weakness could be this year’s strength.
They signed blocking tight end Lee Smith away from Buffalo. They used a third-round pick on Miami’s Clive Walford a versatile talent who has turned heads during the offseason program. They join incumbents in Rivera and Brian Leonhardt to flesh out a strong unit.
“Because each guy has their niche, we can highlight those guys’ strengths and not make them play to weaknesses,” Tight ends coach Bobby Johnson told the team website. “We have a nice mix of guys. There are a lot of good things in that group.”
Tight end versatility is key in Bill Musgrave’s offense, especially when the Raiders go up-tempo. That allows the Raiders to run different types of plays using the same personnel package.
The Raiders running game suffered due to a lack of quality blocking tight ends. They have that now in the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Smith, with Leonhardt in reserve.
Walford adds some real versatility and could contribute as a blocker and receiver right away.
Head coach Jack Del Rio is excited about the group as a whole.
“We added a couple good players to it,” he said last week. “That will certainly be one of the more competitive groups that we have. There is some size there. I think if you want to run the ball, you better have a tight end or two that can block. We feel like we have several that can, but we feel like they can do more than that.
“I’m excited about that position and how it was changed. We have a chance to get some significant production out of that group, not only in the passing numbers for (quarterback Derek Carr) and the passing game, but also as run blockers, clearing up lanes. We have some big guys that will move people.”
Let’s take a closer look at the tight ends on the roster:
Mychal Rivera: The third year pro had 58 catches for 534 yards and four touchdowns last year, and has 941 yards and eight TDs over two seasons. He played 854 snaps last year. Far too many were as a blocker, which doesn’t always suit his strengths.
Lee Smith: Playing for Buffalo last year, nearly all of Smith’s snaps came as a run blocker. That could be true again this season. This hulking presence could be a big help to the team’s power blocking scheme.
Clive Walford: The third-round pick from Miami is a versatile talent that should make an immediate impact. He could end up as a major player. The Raiders have high hopes for him.
Brian Leonhardt: The third-year pro is primarily a blocking tight end. He played in 12 games for the Raiders last year before suffering concussions in consecutive games.
Scott Simonson: The second year pro spent most of last season on the practice squad, but was forced into active duty due to attrition.
Gabe Holmes: The undrafted rookie has the size and tools to be a solid NFL tight end. Time will tell if he can do so.