Editor’s note: Insider Scott Bair will update the progress a specific training camp battle each Tuesday during the preseason. Stay tuned for info on these competitions, which will determine key positions in the starting lineup.
The Raiders have several names already written into the starting lineup with permanent ink. Only injury could take players like Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Donald Penn and Curtis Lofton off the first string.
That’s a good thing.
Head coach Jack Del Rio has established players worthy of a starting spot and a major role on this team. There are some points of contention. They’ll be sorted out over the course of training camp, which begins in earnest when the full squad reports to the Napa Valley Marriott on Thursday morning.
Some players have a starting spot due to pedigree and track record. Others are going to earn it over the next month. There will be competition for smaller roles, but we’ll focus on the biggest battles for a starting spot heading into camp:
Austin Howard (6-foot-7, 330 pounds, sixth season, Northern Iowa) vs. Menelik Watson (6-foot-5, 315 pounds, third season, Florida State)
Early odds: Howard was moved back to his natural position after playing right guard last season, and must fend off Watson, a second-round pick in 2013. It’s important both players succeed, considering Watson’s draft status and the money given to Howard in free agency.
Watson worked with the first unit in minicamp, but the two are even heading into the preseason. Both guys are big, strong and athletic. Both guys certainly want to start at a position that doesn’t require a rotation. The competition should be fierce throughout camp and bring out the best in both players. Howard seems like an early favorite given his track record at tackle with the New York Jets, but Watson could overtake him with a strong camp.
DJ Hayden (5-foot-11, 190 pounds, third season, Houston) vs. Keith McGill (6-foot-3, 211 pounds, second season, Utah)
Early odds: Hayden seemed to have a starting spot locked up heading into the offseason program, but McGill kept creeping on to the first unit. He spent most of his minicamp with the starting group, relegating Hayden to the second team.
Both guys are expected to play in sub packages, but the starting spot opposite TJ Carrie in the base defense will be key. That player will rarely leave the field.
Hayden has the pedigree, but McGill has the size most expect of a modern cornerback. He flashed potential at last season’s end, and could steal a spot if he plays well. Hayden is on a healthy streak and needs to stay that way to become a regular presence. He has the footwork and speed to be a solid corner, but could use some confidence only bestowed with solid play.
Michael Crabtree (6-foot-1, 214 pounds, seventh season, Texas Tech), vs. Rod Streater (6-foot-3, 200 pounds, fourth season, Temple)
Early odds: Crabtree is the clear favorite to start in two receiver sets opposite Amari Cooper. He’s older, more experienced and has hands as reliable as anyone in the NFL. He was brought in to produce on a regular basis.
Even still, don’t sleep on Streater. He’s 100 percent healthy after missing most of last season with a fractured foot, and has the work, ethic, talent and drive to be a starting NFL receiver. If Crabtree slips up a little or shows a lack of explosiveness, Streater could steal a starting spot. Regardless, both players will see significant playing time when the Raiders spread things out. With Cooper, Crabtree and Streater on the field at the same time, the Raiders could be dangerous in the passing game.
Khalif Barnes (6-foot-6, 320 pounds, 11th season, Washington) vs. J’Marcus Webb (6-foot-7, 333 pounds, fifth season, West Texas A&M) vs. Jon Feliciano (6-foot-4, 323 pounds, rookie season, Miami)
Early odds: This is as wide open a competition as there is in Raiders camp. There isn’t an incumbent or a clear-cut favorite, even with Webb taking first-team reps at the team’s mandatory minicamp. Webb, a career tackle, is trying a new position. Barnes has played tackle and left guard, but never on the right. Feliciano is a rookie.
That makes things tough to predict. The Raiders want size and enough athleticism to pull when required. All three guys can handle that. In a perfect world, Feliciano takes control and starts a long, productive career that helps anchor the interior line alongside young center Rodney Hudson and left guard Gabe Jackson. There’s no guarantee that will happen. The Raiders would like Barnes to be a utility player, and Webb poses an intriguing option despite struggling at tackle and spending 2014 out of football. We’ll have a better gauge on this battle once the pads come on next week.
Mychal Rivera (6-foot-3, 245 pounds, third season, Tennessee) vs. Clive Walford (6-foot-4, 258 pounds, rookie season, Miami)
Early odds: Rivera has 96 receptions for 941 yards and eight touchdowns in two professional seasons. That’s productive enough to keep a starting gig, even as a receiving tight end. Those numbers didn’t stop the Raiders from selecting Walford in the third round of this year’s draft.
The young buck impressed at every stage of the offseason program, and has shown versatility at the position and an ability to be a large target and a downfield threat. Walford seems ready to earn significant playing time, sometimes at Rivera’s expense. Rivera should see the field quite a bit and have a role even if Walford lives up to the hype.
Early odds: There are too many options to name, so we won’t do a tale of the tape at this position. The Raiders have several options to return kicks and punts, though none of them is a front runner or a slam dunk. Some, like Latativus Murray and TJ Carrie, have significant roles on offense or defense. Others may not be ready for such duty. Taiwan Jones, George Atkinson III, Josh Harper, Trindon Holliday, Austin Willis and even Amari Cooper (though his involvement seems unlikely) will enter the mix for a pivotal role on special teams.