Programming note: For comprehensive Raiders coverage from Napa, tune in to SportsNet Central tonight at 6, 10:30 and midnight on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
NAPA – Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera had a productive rookie season. His 38 catches for 407 yards and four touchdowns were a solid start to an NFL career for the low-round draft pick out of Tennessee.
Rivera’s take: Not good enough.
He set off on a rigorous offseason training program designed to build on last year’s foundation. That mission was accomplished. The coaching staff can certainly tell.
“The guy who has shown the most improvement from a year ago is Mychal Rivera,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “He looks more athletic. He’s stronger and more confident. He has a little bit of swagger to him this season.”
Rivera has always been a confident fellow, but his faith is well placed. He’s had a excellent start to training camp, an important achievement with a new quarterback in town.
Matt Schaub has an affinity for reaching tight ends, with several players posting career numbers working with the veteran quarterback. That fact wasn’t lost on Rivera, who wanted to make himself a primary target.
“I knew that we were going to make a quarterback change and things were going to happen, and when Matt Schaub was that guy, the first thing I did was look at how many tight ends he’d thrown to, how many times,” Rivera said. “I have been working together a lot. He’s been working with the tight ends a lot; he’s really vocal. He’s a leader on the team. For the past couple weeks he’s been grabbing us after practice, running routes, just trying to get better at our chemistry. I just can’t wait to see what Matt does with the tight ends.”
The coaching staff has also gotten creative with their tight end use. The Raiders will use Rivera in several different roles, from slot receiver to in-line blocker. They put him in motion to find a mismatch. They’ll put him in the backfield like a fullback. The mental responsibility is huge, but it’s an undertaking Rivera certainly welcomes.
“It’s really challenging,” Rivera said. “I tell people all the time I play four or five positions. I go through the playbook as an offensive lineman. Then I go through a playbook as a receiver, and then as a fullback. Then you have to go through it as the quarterback’s eyes. You have to be focused all the time.”
While Olson says he’s become a more efficient blocker – clearly the weakness in his game last year – he holds real value as a receiver.
“You can move him around, flex him out, put him in the backfield, use him in motion, and I think he does an outstanding job, really, with his feel in the passing game,” head coach Dennis Allen said. “I think he has a really nice feel of the passing game. And you know, he’s able to make plays in a contested environment. Sometimes, even with limited separation, he’s still able to come up and make the play. I think he’s improved a lot.”
Improvement doesn’t guarantee playing time this year. Rivera is fighting for reps with a healthy David Ausberry, a competition that ranks among the best in camp. The second-year pro has thrived in this environment and believes that it will accelerate his progress in the long run.
“If there was no competition, you would never be pushed to be better than you are now,” Rivera said. “The competition that me and Ausberry are having, that’s part of the reason why I’m doing good right now. Competition brings out the best in everybody.”