GLENDALE, Ariz. — What’s one sign you’ve made it in the NFL?
When all of your key starters don’t even bother to hit the field in the exhibition opener, which the Raiders lost 20-10 on Saturday night to the Arizona Cardinals.
Derek Carr suited up but never needed his helmet as only three offensive starters ever saw the field. Most of their starting defense was out there, as it should have been considering the work it needs, but Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin didn’t play.
Marshawn Lynch experienced an interesting night as he suited up for the Raiders for the first time. There was never a chance that he was going to play, but he did put on the pads for pre-game warmups.
And then, as shown in pictures posted by the Associated Press and USA Today Sports, Lynch chose to sit on an orange water cooler during the playing of the national anthem. Whether that was his way of joining the protest toward social injustices started by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last season wasn’t immediately clear, but it certainly figures to be a hot topic.
Here’s what we learned from the exhibition opener:
1. Playing it safe: The Raiders could’ve given Carr a token possession with a few handoffs, but they didn’t bother. It was an automatic they’d sit guys who have been dealing with injuries like Amari Cooper, Mack, Irvin, Obi Melifonwu and Gareon Conley, who is still on the physically unable to perform list.
But they played it extra cautious by keeping out Michael Crabtree, Jared Cook, the starting interior offensive line of Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson and fullback Jamize Olawale.
Most of those guys will see action at some point in the exhibition season, but there’s no reason to expose them this early on.
2. Defense not fixed: The Raiders pegged so many of their defensive issues last season on poor communication they expected to have cleaned up this year. That wasn’t immediately evident.
On Arizona’s first drive, either TJ Carrie or Reggie Nelson blew the coverage and Jaron Brown was running free down the middle of the field. But Carson Palmer overthrew Brown as the Raiders escaped giving up a truly ugly play.
Two drives later, the Raiders only had 10 players on the field when fortunately an alert Karl Joseph called a time out. These are issues you expect to see in the exhibition season, but it’s easy to overreact so early when you consider the issues from last season.
3. Manuel maintains lead: E.J. Manuel has long held the apparent edge in the backup quarterback battle and that didn’t change Saturday. He played the first half and completed 10 of 12 passes for 107 yards despite not having Cooper, Crabtree or Cook to throw to. His best pass was a 30-yarder to tight end Clive Walford that he nicely dropped in.
Connor Cook was 10 of 21 for 82 yards, with his longest pass of 29 yards coming on a screen play that John Crockett turned into a big gain.
THREE WHO HELPED THEMSELVES
1. Safety Karl Joseph: The second-year safety is already a locked-in starter of course, but he showed the early signs of being more of an impact player. He raced in to deliver a big thumping hit on one of Arizona’s first running plays of the night and was highly active while he was out there — so much so that he looked like one of those key starters that should’ve been sitting on the bench.
2. Defensive tackle Treyvon Hester: It’s no secret the Raiders need some interior push on that defensive front. Hester showed he may be able to provide that. He received rotational snaps with the starting defense and helped anchor the second-team line and delivered a pair of sacks and a quarterback hurry.
3. Linebacker LaTroy Lewis: Where did he come from? An undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, he hasn’t really drawn any attention during training camp but proved to be worth watching a little more after coming off the edge to notch two sacks. Sure, he did it against backup linemen, but for a team in need of some secondary pass rushers behind Mack and Irvin, he could earn himself an extra look.
THREE WHO HURT THEMSELVES
1. Cornerback Sean Smith: The night couldn’t have gone worse for Smith, whom the Raiders gave a four-year, $38 million contract to last year. He looks more like a candidate to be cut — even with a guaranteed $9.5 million salary this season — than he does to start. Smith was called for pass interference on his first snap of the night, then picked up an illegal contact penalty later in the game when the Cardinals’ Chris Hubert beat him deep and he just reached out and grabbed him. He got beat another time on what should’ve been a touchdown but Arizona backup quarterback Drew Stanton overthrew the pass. While he’s a sunk cost for this year, the Raiders might have to consider eating that money if he continues on this path.
2. Linebacker Marquel Lee: The rookie middle linebacker has a lot riding on him to help stabilize this defense and he didn’t get off to a great start. Lee, a fifth-round pick, was constantly getting blown out of run plays and chasing from behind in coverage on pass plays. He did have a fumble recovery, finished with six tackles and had a couple flashes in coverage, but overall it wasn’t the best debut.
3. Right tackle Vadal Alexander: The Raiders’ biggest leverage in the Donald Penn holdout is to have their line play well in his absence. Alexander, who would’ve been battling Marshall Newhouse for the right tackle job if Penn was in camp, was beat badly on a play that led to Manuel getting crushed for a nine-yard sack. The Raiders don’t want to see their QBs taking big hits like that.
— The Raiders are already thin at offensive tackle with Penn’s holdout and David Sharpe dealing with an injury that kept him out and then saw Denver Kirkland leave in the third quarter with some type of leg injury. The versatile Kirkland started the game at left guard and was playing left tackle with the second unit when he got hurt.
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