May 8, 2015; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders tight ends coach Bobby Johnson (right) with tight ends Terrell Pinson (44), Gabe Holmes (82) and Clive Walford (88) at rookie minicamp at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
It is often said that a young quarterback’s best friend is the tight end. And if you look at some of the successful old quarterbacks around the league lately (Brady, Manning, Brees), its clear that this axiom applies across the age spectrum. The tight end position is one of the most important to a modern NFL offense. A good tight end can both command attention and create production in the passing game as well as block efficiently in the run game. The Raiders have struggled to find consistent quality play from this position since Zach Miller left.
That looks to change for 2015. Reggie McKenzie addressed the tight end position in both free agency and in the draft, bringing in free agent blocking TE Lee Smith from the Bills an drafting University of Miami standout Clive Walford in the 3rd round. The Raiders now have some legitimate competition and diversity of skills in the tight ends group going into camp.
All for Tennessee
The Raiders’ primary receiving tight end over the past two years has been Mychal Rivera, a 6th round pick out of Tennessee in the 2013 draft. Rivera finished second on the team in receptions in 2014 with 58, for 534 yards and 4 TD’s. Throughout the course of the season Rivera showed flashes of brilliance, though he could also disappear in games. He also continued to struggle as a run blocker, though he did seem to improve late in the season last year.
The Raiders also used Brian Leonhardt heavily last season, mostly as a blocking TE: he caught a mere six passes last season, though one was for a touchdown. The athletic but perpetually-hurt David Ausberry also caught two passes last year from the tight end position.
This year the Raiders come into camp with five tight ends on the roster: Rivera, Walford, Smith and Leonhardt along with undrafted rookie Gabe Holmes out of Purdue. With Rivera being the incumbent starter, Smith signed to a 3-year, $9M deal with $3.1M guaranteed for 2015, and Walford being a 3rd round pick, Leonhardt and Holmes seem like the odd men out.
Smith, who is a blocking specialist, spent four years with Buffalo and has caught a total of 20 passes in his career. At 6’6″ and 265 pounds he is also the biggest tight end the Raiders have, and he is a versatile blocker who can make a difference in the run game. He will likely also play a key role on special teams for the Raiders.
Rivera and Walford, meanwhile, will slug it out for the starting role and will likely both see action in the passing game in 2015. Rivera has two years of NFL experience and production under his belt, but will be challenged by the more athletic Walford. Walford has the ability to stretch the seam and make big plays, while Rivera is more of a possession-type tight end.
The wild card in the group is Gabe Holmes, who spent five years at Purdue, having been granted a medical redshirt for 2013 after an early-season injury. He is 6’5″ and 260 pounds with great wheels for the position (ran a 4.7 40 at his Pro Day) and caught 63 passes and 5 TD’s for a Purdue program that struggled to throw the ball at all. He may push Walford and Rivera, though it’s doubtful he finds a spot on the 53-man roster.
1. Clive Walford
2. Mychal Rivera
3. Lee Smith
PRACTICE SQUAD: Gabe Holmes
RELEASED: Brian Leonhardt
Next: Depth Chart Projection: OL