With just two preseason games left, the regular season is just around the corner for the Las Vegas Raiders and the rest of the NFL. That also means the training camp position battles are about to come to an end, making this Saturday’s game against the Miami Dolphins one of the last opportunities the Raiders’ rookies will have to prove themselves.
For some, their roster spots are intact and these next two bouts are about vying for positioning on the depth chart and getting ready for the next several months. But for others, time’s a tickin’ and it’s put up or shut up time.
Zach VanValkenburg vs. Kellen Diesch
How about we kick off our rookie matchups with a battle between two undrafted free agents and two guys on the roster bubble?
VanValkenburg has been one of the Raiders’ standouts so far this preseason, especially against the run. His 78.5 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus not only leads the team but also ranks fifth among edge defenders across the entire league, minimum of five snaps against the run. Also, he’s notched two run stops at a rate of 28.6 percent, which is good enough to tie for second and tie for third at the position, respectively, and he hasn’t missed a tackle this month.
However, what’s keeping the former Hawkeye down on the depth chart are his pass rush skills. In 26 opportunities, he’s recorded just one pressure — a quarterback hurry — and has earned a sub-par 59.2 pass rush grade. That was one of his issues coming out of Iowa, and he faces a tough test in that department against the Dolphins.
At Arizona State, Diesch allowed just 11 pressures in two seasons and surrendered the fewest (eight) among Pac 12 tackles in 2021, one spot ahead of the Seattle Seahawks’ third-round pick, Abraham Lucas. The Sun Devil also posted an 89.4 PFF pass-blocking grade that was the sixth-best at his position in all of FBS.
But the primary reason why Diesch slipped through the cracks of the NFL Draft, is his prowess as a run blocker was not up to snuff. That should make for an interesting matchup between him and VanValkenburg, pitting their respective strengths and weaknesses against each other. For both guys, it’s an opportunity to show their coaches how much they’ve grown since their college days.
Brittain Brown vs. Channing Tindall
After missing the Hall of Fame game, Brown got to make his NFL debut last week against the Vikings. He put together a strong outing with 14 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown, with 38 yards coming after contact which was tied for fifth-most among running backs.
But still, the UCLA product faces an uphill battle to make the roster.
Josh Jacobs, Brandon Bolden and Zamir White will likely have their spots intact, while Ameer Abdullah and Kenyan Drake are battling it out for a seat in the meeting room. Even if head coach Josh McDaniels decides to keep five running backs, Brown is on the outside looking in and is behind the eight ball having missed the team’s first preseason game.
If he’s going to have any chance at sticking around next month, he’s going to have to prove himself in the passing game, whether that be as a receiver or in pass protection. That’s a requirement for running backs in McDaniels’ system, and so far, that’s been lacking from the former Bruin’s game.
While he only had a few opportunities last week, Brown posted a 49.4 pass-blocking grade and only caught two passes for seven yards with no first downs or touchdowns. Plus, he struggled in those areas in college, notching pass protection marks in the 20s and 30s over the last four seasons and catching fewer than 10 passes in three out of the last four.
Unfortunately, things won’t get much easier for Brown this week. Tindall was one of the best coverage linebackers in the country last season, ranking 14th in all of FBS with an 81.9 coverage grade and allowing just 72 yards in 15 games when targeted. That trend continued during the preseason last week, posting an elite 90.5 coverage grade and yielding just five yards in coverage.
As a pass rusher, the Georgia product racked up 5.5 sacks and 26 pressures in 2021. The latter ranked tied for fourth among SEC linebackers, and his 28.8 percent win rate was 11th-best at the position in the country.
So, Brown has his hands full on Saturday but a strong performance could catch the eyes of the Raiders coaching staff or another team around the league.
Also, we could be in store for a battle between two college teammates with White and Tindall.
Sam Webb vs. Erik Ezukanma
As an undrafted free agent from a Division II school, Webb is the definition of an underrated prospect. However, he’s hard to miss, measuring in at a little over six feet tall and 201 pounds at the combine, both of which were nearly in the 90th percentile for a corner. Perhaps even more impressively, he can move.
Webb clocked a 4.48-second 40-yard dash time in February, to go along with a 6.94-second three-cone, 42.5-inch vertical and 11.25-foot broad jump. All of that earned him a 9.33 RAS score which is among the likes of former first-round picks Jalen Ramsey and Jeff Okudah.
But the Missouri Western State alum isn’t just someone who stands out in the underwear Olympics, he’s been one of the Raiders’ best corners this preseason. On five targets, he’s allowed just two catches for 15 yards and a passer rating of 47.9 while also picking up a pass breakup. However, Webb might be in for his biggest test yet as a 6’2” and 209-pound receiver awaits.
Ezukanma is a good athlete in his own right, posting a 7.05 RAS score at the combine, with an impressive 36.5-inch vertical that helped him rank fourth among Big 12 receivers with nine contested catches last season. And that wasn’t just a volume stat, his 56.3 percent success rate on such targets was good enough for seventh in the conference.
The Texas Tech product can make plays after the catch, too. In 2021, his 7.8 YAC per reception ranked second at his position in the conference, and his 11 missed tackles forced were tied for the fifth-most. Adding another feather to his cap, the latter figure was down from the previous year where he had 14 and ranked third.
In other words, get ready to watch a battle between two physical specimens in South Beach this weekend.