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Raiders could take early plunge at tight end position

Updated April 18, 2019 - 7:59 pm

ALAMEDA, Calif. — The Raiders’ situation at tight end resembles where they stand at running back.

Depth is not the issue.

Darren Waller offers untapped upside as an athletic 6-foot-6-inch target. Lee Smith is a strong blocker and core presence in the locker room. Derek Carrier is a steady and versatile veteran, able to contribute both as a blocker and receiver. Paul Butler quietly developed in 2018 as an undrafted rookie, and Luke Willson recently signed as a free agent.

A good body of talent exists in the group. All that’s missing is a face.

The Raiders are in the market for a No. 1 tight end after Jared Cook departed last month in free agency. There is a good chance they’ll draft one with their assigned No. 24, 27 or No. 35 overall selection. As many as three tight ends are projected to go in the first round, two of which could be off the board before Oakland’s choice at No. 24.

Cook, 32, signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the New Orleans Saints.

He set career highs in 2018 with 68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns. The Raiders gave little pursuit, electing to invest instead at wide receiver and wait until the draft to explore a possible replacement.

“That guy was a really good player, man,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Cook last month at the annual NFL meetings. “It’s sickening to think that we lost that guy. That’s one of the things I don’t like about free agency: You can’t keep all the guys you want. That’s a lot of production to replace. This Darren Waller is very interesting. We are going to give him a chance of a lifetime, so if you are listening out there Darren, let’s go brother.

“I really think he is intriguing. It’ll be an interesting training camp for him, but we’re looking. We’ll keep looking. Those are some big shoes to fill.”

The Raiders signed Waller off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in late November.

On Dec. 16, he demonstrated big-play ability against the Cincinnati Bengals, breaking a tackle on an underneath pass in the right flat and turning upfield for a 44-yard gain to the 1-yard line. Later, he gained 21 yards on an end-around carry.

Waller, 26, caught all six targets in 2018 for a combined 75 yards.

Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant can become the first tight ends from the same college to be selected in the first round of the same draft. Hockenson is considered a tremendous blocker and nuanced route runner. Fant is less polished but more athletic, able to stretch field with his vertical speed. He clocked 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine.

Fant, for that matter, outperformed Hockenson in the 40, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone drill.

Irv Smith Jr. of Alabama is an option if Hockenson or Fant aren’t available at No. 24. Should the Raiders pass on a tight end at both No. 24 and 27, they’ll run the risk of a team such as the New England Patriots at No. 32 dipping into the group before the Raiders pick again at No. 35.

New England also could move up to address its positional need, which emerged with Rob Gronkowski’s offseason retirement.

So if the Raiders are insistent upon selecting one of the draft’s top three tight ends, they may prefer not to wait.

More Raiders: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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