Preseason Week 1 Preview: Raiders at Cardinals
The return of NFL football kicks into full gear this week and Saturday’s action closes with a game between the Oakland Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals. Preseason games are a time for teams to find out exactly who will be playing for them, whether it be specialists, rotational guys, or full time starters. Below, PFF’s team of analysts have all the most important position battles and players to watch during today’s game.
Coverage by: Mike Guerrelli
Position Battle: Cory James/Jelani Jenkins, Weakside LB
The Raiders are looking for an upgrade at weakside linebacker after they decided not to re-sign Malcolm Smith this offseason. James has been getting most of the first team snaps in that spot during training camp. He played 411 snaps as a rookie in 2016 and was PFFs 76th ranked linebacker out of 86 that qualified with an overall grade of 41.7. James allowed 1.01 yards per cover snap, 34th of 57 inside linebackers with 150+ snaps in coverage.
Jenkins is the only serious challenger to James after signing as a free agent with Oakland in March. Jenkins played only 406 snaps with Miami last season while battling injuries, and his overall PFF grade of 30.1 was a career low and last of the 86 qualifying linebackers. Jenkins missed 14 tackles in 42 attempts for a tackling efficiency of 3.0 that ranked last among 4-3 OLBs that played at least 100 snaps.
LT Marshall Newhouse and RT Vadal Alexander
As Donald Penn continues his training camp hold out, Oakland has shuffled its offensive line, putting Newhouse at left tackle and Alexander at right tackle. Newhouse hasn’t played left tackle full time since the 2012 season with Green Bay, when he allowed eight sacks and 46 total pressures in 641 pass block snaps. He ranked 38th in pass blocking efficiency (pressures allowed per-snap with weighting toward sacks) of 64 offensive tackles that year with 300+ pass protection snaps.
In 2016 Alexander logged 306 snaps as a rookie, 171 of them at right tackle. He ranked 25th of 93 tackles with at least 100 pass block snaps in pass blocking efficiency with one sack allowed and six total pressures in 117 pass protection snaps. With the huge investment the Raiders just made in quarterback Derek Carr, this is hardly an ideal situation.
As an undrafted free agent Borders has been turning heads in training camp, doing well enough on the second and third teams that he earned snaps as the nickel corner with the first unit. Last year at Duke Borders allowed a 70.1 passer rating on throws into his coverage, ninth best among 46 ACC cornerbacks that played 150+ snaps in coverage. However he allowed the highest yards per cover snap of those ACC cornerbacks at 1.96.
LB Marquel Lee
The Raiders are hoping their fifth-round pick Lee is their middle linebacker of the future and present. He ranked as the 83rd best linebacker out of 410 that qualified in FBS last season with an overall PFF grade of 80.2. Lee had 47 stops (plays graded as a “loss” for the offense) against the run in 381 snaps, the ninth highest total for all FBS linebackers.
Coverage by: Mark Chichester
Position Battle: Justin Bethel/Brandon Williams, CB
With superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson cemented as a starter in Arizona, one of the main questions heading into the preseason was who start opposite him. As Bethel watched the Hall of Fame Game from the sidelines, Brandon Williams got a head start to the 2017 campaign, and logged 35 snaps against the Dallas Cowboys. He allowed one 32-yard reception from three targets, and snagged an impressive interception in the back of the end zone. He allowed a passer rating of 34.7 on throws into his primary coverage, and recorded a PFF coverage grade of 74.4. However, Williams did also surrender two penalties. Williams played 240 total snaps in his rookie season, and operated almost entirely on the outside. He was the most frequently targeted Cardinal cornerback (3.7 cover snaps per target), and also allowed a team-high in passer rating (115.3) and yards per cover snap (2.06). Bethel will return to the field for his team’s second game, and will look to lock down the starting job opposite Peterson. He logged 166 coverage snaps in 2016, with 46.4% of his snaps covering the slot. However, he performed better when lined up outside, allowing 1.46 yards per coverage on the outside compared to his 1.90 when covering the slot.
Blaine Gabbert, QB
Gabbert played the entire first half of the Hall of Fame game, and recorded an adjusted completion percentage of 92.9 percent on his 14 pass attempts. Gabbert completed all four of his passes when pressured, and went 8 for 8 with a passer rating of 118.6 on passes over the middle of the field. While it’s still too early to declare an all-out competition between Blaine Gabbert and backup Drew Stanton, when Bruce Arians was asked about it after the game, he said, “there’s a chance…”
Ulrick John, OT
The fourth-year offensive tackle played the entire first half of the Hall of Fame game, logging 31 snaps at right tackle. At present, John is listed as the backup right tackle, but John will want to show that he can bounce back from a 2016 season in which he his pass blocking efficiency of 88.5 ranked 91st of 93 offensive tackles with at least 100 pass blocking snaps. John performed favourably in pass protection during his team’s first outing, keeping his quarterback clean for all 17 pass blocking snaps and earning the highest pass blocking grade among tackles on his team (79.4).
Robert Nkemdiche, DI
The Cardinals 2016 first-round pick was also impressive during the Hall of Fame game. On his 10 run defense snaps he logged one tackle and found himself in the Cowboys backfield on more than one occasion. He also logged one quarterback pressure on his 11 pass rush snaps, for a pass rush productivity of 6.8, which led all Cardinals defensive linemen. Nkemdiche ended the game with a PFF overall grade of 83.7, a run defense grade of 84.2 and a pass rushing grade of 75.8. Coming off a disappointing rookie season, he will be keen to continue his performance.