GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nobody’s going to pretend that exhibition NFL games are the most exciting events in the world.
But after a couple weeks of training camp action, the Raiders are ready to welcome an opponent when they travel to face the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.
“Gotta love it,” coach Jack Del Rio said of kicking off the exhibition season. “It will be good for us to see where we are after a couple weeks at camp. Looking forward to it.”
Here are five things to watch Saturday night:
1. Backup QB battle: There’s been so much chatter about how EJ Manuel is clearly ahead of Connor Cook in the race to be the backup quarterback that you almost forget these guys haven’t taken a meaningful snap yet.
Sure, Manuel has gotten virtually all of the second-team quarterback reps, while Cook has been mostly relegated to third-string work. But the exhibition games give both players a chance to separate themselves when they face the actual threat of getting hit.
“That’s a big part of it, how you function when you know that guys can really tee off on you,” Del Rio said. “Being able to absorb a load and get up is a part of it. We
don’t want them doing that very often, but that is a part of it, getting back up and getting back in there.”
The backup quarterback job is the least important job until it’s the most important, as the Raiders learned last year. The battle between Manuel and Cook could affect other roster spots. In theory, should Cook win the backup job, the Raiders could go with just two active QBs on the roster (and add a third on the practice squad) and have more flexibility elsewhere.
Derek Carr shouldn’t play much in this opener, so both Manuel and Cook will get to show what they can do.
2. Leverage for Donald Penn: What happens if Marshall Newhouse doesn’t exactly acquit himself well at left tackle against the Cardinals? Well, let’s just say Donald Penn may crack a slight smile.
Penn is locked into a holdout that’s expected to last at least through the second exhibition game. It’s a battle of leverage at this point. Penn has been one of the better left tackles in the league since joining the Raiders, yet with a $5.8 million base salary this year he’s not being paid like one. He wants a raise of upwards of $5 million and maybe another year tacked on.
The Raiders need him — or you would think they do. But if Newhouse starts looking mighty capable of filling in and Vadal Alexander locks down the right side, the Raiders have less reason to pay Penn extra. He’ll be watching this game closely on television.
3. Draftee debuts: The first exhibition game is always fun to get a nice first look at a draft class, except, well the Raiders top two picks aren’t going to play.
First-round cornerback Gareon Conley is on the physically unable to perform list with what general manager Reggie McKenzie described as shin splints only to have Conley — a player McKenzie ferociously backed as he face a rape investigation — take the curious and unwise route of tweeting that he didn’t have shin splints. He also seemed to agree with a respondent who blamed the media for the misinformation. It puts a curious stain on his record fresh off avoiding charges for the rape accusation.
Obi Melifonwu, a safety and second-round pick, also won’t play after being mostly a spectator at recent practices with an undisclosed injury. That makes third-round defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes the primary rookie draftee to watch.
Vanderdoes has had an impressive camp and plays a position the Raiders desperately need an impact player. While most starters won’t see a ton of playing time, the rookie should get a fair amount of snaps. He and fifth-round linebacker Marquel Lee are both potential starters for this defense.
“Very explosive, great hands,” Carr said of Vanderdoes. “That kind of player inside with Bruce (Irvin) and Khalil (Mack) rushing the outside, it’s going to be a problem. It really is. I’m really happy that we have him and he didn’t go to another AFC West team and let them add another pass rusher.”
It’s only the first game, but it’s time to see if Vanderdoes can live up to the expectations he’s quickly established.
4. Hidden gems: The Raiders have a nice history under McKenzie of finding an undrafted gem or two and have a couple of candidates this year.
Duke product Breon Borders has been getting a lot of time with the first-team defense as a slot cornerback, helped out by Conley’s absence and Sean Smith’s struggles. Not only does he have a real shot at making the team, it would seem likely at this stage that he does.
Wide receiver K.J. Brent also continues to do nothing but impress in camp and is ready to show what he can do in the exhibition games after catching seven passes for 113 yards last year to earn a spot on the practice squad. In terms of pure receiving talent, Brent’s looked like the fourth-best receiver on the roster behind Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Seth Roberts this camp, so he’s roster shot has legitimacy.
5. Getting out healthy: The last two times the Raiders have played Arizona in the exhibition season, they’ve suffered a serious injury. It was Mario Edwards Jr. last season in the exhibition going down with a first-quarter hip injury that cost him 14 games. Two years ago, in the third game, former right tackle Menelik Watson ruptured his Achilles.
With already more players than they’d like dealing with nagging injuries, the Raiders need to avoid anything significant and that’s one reason why the front-line players will probably play even less than they normally do.
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