Dec 28, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) lines up against the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 47-14. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The Oakland Raiders have released their first unofficial depth chart for the 2015 season in advance of this Friday’s preseason matchup against the Saint Louis Rams. In a statement prior to the release, Head Coach Jack Del Rio stated that it was “far from set in stone,” and preseason depth charts are generally poor indicators of team depth by week 1 of the regular season, after players are cut and position battles are decided in training camp. But a few things did stand out on this depth chart.
Mack is a DE
The item that stood out the most, and has already been widely discussed by Raider media, is that last year’s fifth overall pick and NFL Network’s 49th-best player in the league Khalil Mack has been listed as a starter at the defensive end position, after being drafted as – and playing as – an outside linebacker.
Of course the move makes absolute sense and isn’t overly surprising. In 2014, Jason Tarver used Mack heavily as a defensive end in passing situations, rushing from a “wide 9” alignment. In the Raider base defense, Mack simply stood up near the line of scrimmage and rushed the passer or attacked the outside contain role in run defense, like a defensive end. Mack is a pass rush specialist and one of the best young pass rushers in the league, it stood to reason he’d play in the “LEO” rush end role in Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr.’s 4-3 defense.
Mack’s re-categorization as a defensive end of course shakes up a linebacker corps that has seen some new additions and some departures since the 2014 season. Former Saint Curtis Lofton and former Seahawk Malcolm Smith were added in free agency, and both are now listed as starters: Lofton at Mike, the position he held as a starter in New Orleans for several seasons; Smith at Will, where he was mostly used as a backup and situational player last year but also was a Super Bowl MVP in 2013 for Seattle.
Third year man Ray-Ray Armstrong, a waiver wire acquisition last season who started his career as an UDFA with the Rams, is penciled in as the starting Sam backer, the role vacated by Mack. It will be interesting to see how much Armstrong actually plays in this role: he is more of a cover linebacker like Malcolm Smith but can play the run adequately, however he is not known as a pass-rusher It is likely this role is platooned between him and perhaps Sio Moore when Moore returns from injury.
As for Moore, who started all last season at the Will linebacker spot and is an exciting but mistake-prone young linebacker, he is listed as second on the depth chart at the Will spot behind Malcolm Smith, which is unsurprising given that he hasn’t been practicing. It will be interesting to see how Del Rio and Norton use Moore when he does return: he is a solid run defender and talented pass rusher and might be a better fit for the starting Sam role, but he may platoon in at both spots depending on the situation.
Rookie draft picks Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball are listed as the #2 men at Mike and Sam, respectively, which isn’t overly surprising for a preseason depth chart. Look for both players to play a lot in the first game of preseason, both with the defensive unit and on special teams.
One surprise on the depth chart was that Rod Streater, who was the Raiders leading receiver in 2013 and entered the 2014 season as the team’s #1 wideout before being injured early in the year, is listed near the bottom of the receiver depth, ahead of only UDFA Josh Harper and kick return specialist Trindon Holliday.
Streater has been dealing with another injury that has kept him out of practice quite a bit this offseason, which might be the explanation. But so has Sio Moore, and so has rookie tight end Clive Walford, and both are higher on the depth charts in their respective position groups.
Granted, depth chart position at wide receiver isn’t a big deal: all the healthy wideouts will play in preseason and the team will likely carry most of them up until final roster cuts. But for a player who the team gave a second round tender to just this past offseason, Streater is surprisingly low on the totem pole.
Quarterback Position Battle
The depth at QB went just as expected: Derek Carr is the starter, Christian Ponder 2nd, Matt McGloin 3rd, and rookie UDFA acquisition Cody Fajardo listed 4th. But as I wrote the other day, there will be some competition between McGloin and Ponder for that #2 spot behind Derek Carr. McGloin, who once started six games for the Raiders and spent much of last year as the #2 man, may not want to settle for being the 3rd man on the depth chart. Him staying behind Ponder could mean that McGloin gets let go at final roster cuts.
Look for Ponder and McGloin to spend about an equal amount of time leading the offense for the Raiders on Friday. Ponder might even start the game, as starting QB’s don’t necessarily play at all in the first game of preseason. Fajardo, a rookie out of a spread-option run system, will likely take a few snaps in the 4th quarter but the quarterback battle for the Raiders #2 spot will play out for most of the game.