Our own Hayden Nadolny is back with latest in his multi-part series: a look at the Raiders current roster by position. Nadolny will explore positions of need for the team heading into the Jon Gruden era and 2018 season. His second post explores the current state of the Raiders Tight Ends.
It was widely expected that the Oakland Raiders would force the ball to their tight ends throughout the 2017 season. Former offensive coordinator Todd Downing showed an abundance of multiple tight end sets through training camp. Even Lee Smith – known more for his blocking than catching – caught a touchdown right down the middle from Derek Carr in a pre-season game. It was a clear sign of intent, though this intent seemed to drift off into the abyss once the season started. Jon Gruden loves to utilize multiple tight ends in his offense, so we may see a resurgence of production at this position. The current personnel have relatively team-friendly contracts, so Carr may be looking at some new weapons rolling down the middle of the field come the fall if the Raiders want to make personnel changes.
Cook had a polarizing season in 2017, his first as a Raider. He started all 16 games and made a career best 54 catches, while his 688 yards receiving was his best output statistically since 2011. His run blocking in particular left much to be desired, though this has never been Cook’s strong point and not what the Raiders signed him for this past off-season. Despite Cook’s success in the passing game, he only caught two touchdowns on the year. That being said, he didn’t really receive too many opportunities in the red zone to make plays. Cook had some dominant games early in the season before Downing went away from dialling up plays for him. Some fans on social media have called for Cook to be released, despite catching the seventh most passes amongst tight ends for the 11th most receiving yards. At a cap hit of $5.3 million in 2018, Cook is only the 21st highest paid tight end in the NFL. The Raiders have immense value there, and Gruden will be sure to feature him as a key pillar of the offense.
Walford was so invisible in the Raider offense this past season, that Raider Nation has been looking for his face to show up on a milk carton as a missing person. He showed much promise as a rookie but his ATV accident going into his second season as a pro really hindered his development, and he was barely on the field on offense in 2017. A neck injury late in the year forced Walford to miss the final three games of the season. Walford has a $2.1 million (approximately) cap hit in 2018, which is egregiously excessive given his production this past year. It would only cost a little over $198k in dead money on the cap to release Walford, freeing up over $1.9 million. Walford will be a prime candidate to be released this off-season should the Raiders feel the need to get that extra salary cap space to use on an alternative free agent.
Brown was on the practice squad for the majority of his rookie season having been signed as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2017 NFL Draft. He was signed to the active 53-man roster when Walford got injured, and was featured in the final two games of the season against Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Raiders like Brown’s blocking, and with Lee Smith a free agent, Brown may get a long look to fill Smith’s shoes as the primary blocking tight end.
Impending Free Agent:
Smith was quite underwhelming in 2017. He is known for his excellent blocking, but he struggled mightily at times in this area of the game. His attributes as a receiver don’t exactly give him a lot of wiggle room in the passing game either. Smith had to take a $1 Million-pay cut to stay on the roster in 2017, and may have to take a similar pay cut in 2018 if he is to be re-signed by the Raiders.
Free agency targets:
The list of tight ends hitting free agency this off-season isn’t exactly impressive. The top end talent like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates will be staying with their current teams, while other alternative targets like Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Tyler Eifert have significant red flags, be it through injury, drug imposed suspensions, or a combination of the two. Trey Burton would be a great fit for the Raiders, both because he can do the dirty work as a blocker and on special teams, in addition to his red zone prowess (five TDs this season). However, the Eagles rate him highly and there’s a fair chance he will be kept as their second tight end behind Zach Ertz. If Burton hits the market and doesn’t get signed in the first wave of free agency, he should be the Raiders top target at this position to pair with Cook. If Burton weren’t available for the Raiders, Oakland would be better invested to consider upgrading the the position via the draft.
Miller would be in greater demand had he not suffered such a horrific left knee injury during the year that resulted in vascular complications. There are many questions surrounding whether Miller will even be able to get back on the field again such was the severity of his injury. If Miller can indeed return, the Raiders should pursue him heavily. Miller’s positional coach in Chicago was Frank Smith, who is now the tight ends coach in Oakland. It was his years under Smith that were his career best as a pro. Miller is a solid if unspectacular pass catcher, but excels as a blocker. Paired with Cook, the Raiders would have a great one-two punch at the position.