TIGHT END CLIVE WALFORD
No Raider has more upside than their second-year tight end, and with a vertical leap of 35 inches, that’s a lot of up for a fellow his size. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Walford isn’t hard to spot on the field, and this year he’ll be even easier to find since he’ll be on it more. Walford didn’t play football until high school and was unheralded when he entered Miami. By the time he left, he was mentioned in the same breath as some of the Hurricanes’ greats at the position: Kellen Winslow II, Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham. Walford, who caught 28 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, knows how to get open against anyone, anywhere on the field.
MIDDLE LINEBACKER BEN HEENEY
It might not be fair to say the Raiders’ success will depend on one guy, but the second-year middle linebacker – who’s relatively small at 6-foot, 230-pound frame – would be a good choice. The Raiders signed some of the NFL’s best free-agent defenders (Bruce Irvin at outside linebacker, Sean Smith at cornerback and Reggie Nelson at free safety), have a top pass rusher (Khalil Mack) and a strong defensive line, and they drafted a strong safety (Karl Joseph) in the first round, leaving middle linebacker as the biggest question mark. The team has put its trust in Heeney to provide the answer.
GUARD KELECHI OSEMELE
For the second year in a row, the Raiders spent more money on an offensive lineman than on any other free agent. Last year, it was center Rodney Hudson. This year, it’s Osemele, who left the Baltimore Ravens and signed with Oakland for five years and $58.5 million, with $25.4 million guaranteed. Some experts rated Osemele as the best available free-agent offensive lineman, and he’s expected to make his biggest impact in the Raiders’ interior running game, but he can pass-block, too. ESPN recently had him at No. 83 on its list of the NFL’s top 100 players. The only other Raider on the list was Mack at No. 11.
RUNNING BACK DeANDRE WASHINGTON
The rookie out of Texas Tech has 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, which will give the Raiders a different look when he gives Latavius Murray a breather. Washington might even steal Murray’s job even though he’s just 5-8 and 204 pounds. Washington should help the Raiders’ running game, which was 28th in the league last season. He gained 1,492 yards, 15th best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, last year. Washington averaged 6.4 yards a carry, scored 14 rushing touchdowns and caught 41 passes for 385 yards and two scores.
LINEBACKER BRUCE IRVIN
If opponents double-team Mack, chances are Irvin will get plenty of one-on-one opportunities in his pursuit of quarterbacks. Maybe that’s why Irvin chose the Raiders when he became a free agent. This season, it would only be right for the stats guys to give Mack an assist every time Irvin gets a sack from the other side. Irvin had 22 sacks in four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, and if that’s the over-under for this season, the smart money will go north.