Undrafted players making big impression on Raiders
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — After winning just four games last season and holding four picks in the top two rounds of the NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders figured to have plenty of opportunities for rookies to contribute.
What’s a bit surprising is how many of those rookies fighting for spots in the final week before the 90-man roster gets cut down to 53 is how many of those players entered the league as undrafted free agents.
Coach Jon Gruden said he believes five undrafted players have a chance to make the roster on Saturday, although all the contenders know their status is always tenuous after being passed over in the draft.
“Being an undrafted guy, you can be here one day and be somewhere else the next,” defensive tackle Anthony Rush said. “I’ve learned that. But I really feel like this’ll be a good fit for me. Hopefully things work out here for me. If they don’t, you know, just keep pushing. But I feel like they will.”
Rush has been a find since joining the team during training camp. The former UAB player initially signed with Philadelphia, but was cut early in training camp. He then went to Detroit for a tryout and was waiting in a hotel there for the Lions to create a roster spot when the Raiders called.
With Detroit not ready to make a commitment, Rush flew to the Bay Area and signed with the Raiders, where he has made an immediate impact. Six of his nine tackles in the preseason have come at or behind the line of scrimmage as he has been able to use his 350-pound size to control the line of scrimmage.
Rush has company among the undrafted players looking to make the roster. Punter A.J. Cole already won a competition with last year’s fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend and looks set to make the team this season.
Local favorite receiver Keelan Doss, cornerback Keisean Nixon, versatile offensive lineman Andre James and fullback Alec Ingold have also made a case to be included on the initial 53-man list in Oakland or get an opportunity somewhere else.
The Raiders have kept more than two undrafted rookies on the initial 53-man roster just once in the past seven seasons so having this many in the running so close to cut-down day is unusual.
Doss grew up in the same town as the Raiders facility in Alameda and starred in college at FCS-level UC Davis. He got on Gruden’s radar with a strong performance at the Senior Bowl, but was passed over at the draft despite talk that he would be taken in the later rounds.
Doss chose to sign with his hometown team even if the receiver position was crowded following offseason additions of players such as Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, J.J. Nelson, Ryan Grant and fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow.
Doss ranks in the top 10 in the league this preseason with 11 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, putting him squarely in the mix for one of the final spots at receiver along with last year’s seventh-round pick Marcel Ateman and the veteran Grant thanks in large part to his ability to play all three receiver spots.
“I think that’s what kind of prepared me for now,” he said. “It’s that I played every single position. Just give me the best opportunity to get open and so translating that to now, I feel like I probably can make an impact.”
Nixon, who didn’t expect to be drafted after hurting his neck in his final college game at South Carolina, has made a big impact this summer for the Raiders.
He has been targeted 15 times in three preseason games, allowing only five catches for 37 yards, according to Pro Football Focus for a 42.4 passer rating against.
With Nevin Lawson suspended the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancers and last year’s fourth-round pick Nick Nelson struggling, Nixon has a good shot to make the team.
“If you’ve studied the film, you’ll see what we see,” Gruden said. “He’s made more plays than any of our corners. He’s playing extremely well. He’s confident. I mean, he’s had a lot of ball production and he’s also been a factor on special teams, so we are really pleased with Nixon.”
James and Ingold appear to be longer shots to make the team, but could be well-positioned for spots on the practice squad. Ingold played well early in camp when starting fullback Keith Smith was out injured, but might have a hard time making the team now that Smith is healthy.
James, a college tackle at UCLA, has played center for the Raiders and was called one of the “best stories” of camp by Gruden.