MINNEAPOLIS -- The Raiders asked Mychal Rivera to perform several different jobs last season, whether it played to his strengths or not. Be an in-line blocker in the run game. Protect the quarterback. Run sharp routes, catch passes and move the chains. As the only consistently healthy tight end on the roster, Rivera had to do it all.
The Raiders lost David Ausberry, Brian Leonhardt and practice squad player Scott Simonson at times, leaving Rivera to man an incredibly thin position group.
The Raiders went in search of reinforcements. They added massive blocking tight end Lee Smith in free agency, which would help the tight end division of labor. Then they drafted Miami’s Clive Walford, a versatile tight end who excels as a pass catcher.
Hold up. Wasn’t that Rivera’s role? A third-round draft pick is a valuable chip, and the Raiders added competition against a guy with 96 catches for 948 yards and eight touchdowns in two NFL seasons.
Rivera didn’t take it as a slight following a disappointing 3-13 campaign.
“We need help at every position,” Rivera said after Thursday’s practice. “I don’t take anything personal. It is a business. This is the NFL, and they look for as many weapons as possible and for everybody to do their best. ... We have more options at all the skill positions this year, which I believe will free me up more often in the middle."
Rivera has had a great opportunity to earn his role in an upgraded offense. Walford missed most of training camp with injury. He practiced only twice in 15 full sessions, but played the exhibition opener against St. Louis.
Rivera has had the first unit to himself most days, and has built upon previously strong chemistry with Carr. He’ll be in the top spot during Saturday’s exhibition at the Minnesota Vikings, a good position to show he fits well into coordinator Bill Musgrave’s scheme.
“Coach Musgrave is great at creating unique ways to get guys involved and play to their strengths,” Rivera said. “He’ll put me at wideout on one play and fullback the next, and then I could end up on the line. You have to stay in your playbook because, as a tight end, you’re learning multiple positions. You’ve got to be smart.
And versatile. Blocking is going to be key, but having Smith around to do some dirty work will be a big help.
“I’m working really hard at it,” Rivera said. “The coaches are putting me in a good position to succeed in that area. They’re putting me in the backfield and having me slide across the line. We have Lee Smith doing a lot of the in-line blocking, which helps all of us. Our position group is really strong right now, and I’m happy with where the offense is headed.”
Odds are great that Walford will return in due time, and if his performance against the Rams is any indication, the rookie is a tremendous athlete and a quick study. Head coach Jack Del Rio is confident they’ll get Walford ready despite significant time already missed. Even when he’s healthy and contributing, Rivera believes there’s room for more than one productive tight end.
“You’re going to grow and progress as a player, and I believe I’m doing that in Year 3,” Rivera said. “From there, your confidence goes up accordingly. I am gaining confidence and I’m feeling really comfortable in my role here.”