Tight End Clive Walford
In 2016 we saw a multitude of Raiders showcase their talent, and a lot of production came from players people weren't expecting. The emergence of running backs Jalen Richard and DeAndré Washington rounded out an already impressive rushing attack with Latavius Murray at the helm. The rookie duo combined for 958 yards rushing, three rushing touchdowns, 309 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns.
Their contribution – that shocked many people – begs the question, which players could potentially breakout next season? Prior to the start of the 2017 season, here's a look at who Raiders.com writers Kyle Martin and Eddie Paskal think could be a standout talent next year.
The Raiders offense this season was one of the most prolific and productive groups in the league, as the team finished sixth overall with an average of 373.3 yards per game. Whether it was on the ground or through the air, the Silver and Black managed to be efficient behind the leadership of quarterback Derek Carr.
While Carr targeted his wide receivers quite a bit (382 targets), the signal-caller also made it a point to get his tight ends - Clive Walford in particular - involved as the second-year tight end averaged 23.9 receiving yards per outing. In his two seasons with the team, Walford has been consistent, as he's posted back-to-back years with at least 300 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Those might not be staggering numbers, but the way the University of Miami-product earns his keep is impressive.
At 6'4" and 258 pounds, Walford's size, matched with his athleticism and speed, can be a handful for opposing defenses. On a couple occasions this year, No. 88 showcased his speed in the open field, and ability to haul in contested passes while mid-air. Lee Smith is the primary blocking tight end for the Raiders, which means that Walford's strength is being utilized as an offensive weapon. With Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree drawing more and more attention from defenses, I can see the 25-year old taking the next step forward in his development in 2017. The tight end position is a place the offense would probably like to see a little more production from, and I think Walford makes a bigger contribution next season.
While it might not be the most glamorous pick out there, I'm going to go with offensive lineman Vadal Alexander. First things first, just by looking at the versatile big man, he certainly looks the part of an NFL lineman; standing at 6'5" and tipping the scales at 326 pounds he has the prototypical size that Head Coach Jack Del Rio and his staff have said routinely that they covet in their offensive linemen, and a full Offseason Workout Program should only pay positive dividends for the former LSU Tiger. Additionally, Alexander certainly got his feet wet during his rookie season in Silver and Black, appearing in nine games, making five starts in the process. During his time on the gridiron, Alexander wore a lot of hats, playing guard, tackle, and even later in the season serving in the role of the team's extra offensive lineman. That versatility will no doubt serve No. 74 well going forward, and while it's way too early to start prognosticating about possible offensive line combinations, I think 2017 will be a big year for Alexander.
When Charles Woodson decided to retire in 2015, the Raiders understood that there was a massive hole they would need to fill in the secondary. In free agency, the team signed veteran safety Reggie Nelson who finished the season with five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, 50 tackles, and a Pro Bowl selection. In addition, the team drafted rookie safety Karl Joseph with the 14th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.
In his 12 games on the field, Joseph started nine of them, and tallied 44 tackles, an interception, six passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. Towards the last quarter of the season, the West Virginia-product suffered an injury that kept him sidelined for a decent amount of time. When healthy, the 5'10" 205 pound safety played hard – and hit hard too – as he showed his ability to hunt the ball carrier, and deliver a walloping punch to stop his opponent in their tracks.
Prior to his rookie season, Joseph was rehabbing from a torn ACL he suffered in college that prevented him from participating in a majority of the Offseason Workout Program. With a full season under his belt and a full offseason to enhance his game, I expect Joseph to start next season on a good note and carry it through his second season in Silver and Black.
On the defensive side of the football, I'm going to go with another player heading into his second year as a Raider, linebacker Shilique Calhoun. While the rangy defender primarily made his hay on special teams last year – which isn't all that surprising for a rookie – he did tally a half sack, and five tackles during the 10 games he appeared in before being placed on the Reserve/Injured List on Dec. 23. Now, I know that Calhoun's stats from last year aren't going to draw many 'oohs' or 'ahhs,' but what really intrigues me about the lengthy defender is his physical potential. Calhoun is tall with long arms, and I anticipate him coming back in 2017 with a little added muscle on his 6'4" frame. During his time at Michigan State, Calhoun excelled at bringing down the quarterback – his 27 sacks ranks second all-time in program history – and with a year of NFL experience under his belt, it'll be interesting to see the type of jump he can make in Year 2. It's no secret that aside from Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack the Raiders had a hard time generating a pass rush in 2016, so keep an eye on Calhoun and see if he's able to fill that role.