The Raiders wanted to create a foundation for the future with their 2023 draft class, and those nine rookies have a chance to make an immediate impact.
A class that veteran cornerback Nate Hobbs describes as “a lot of young guys who have the potential to be great” could yield at least four players who will start or play significant snaps Sunday in the season opener at Denver.
That includes defensive end Tyree Wilson potentially starting in place of Chandler Jones. Wilson, the No. 7 pick in the draft, was cleared to return to practice three weeks ago after dealing with a foot injury that had sidelined him since November.
The plan was to bring the former Texas Tech star along slowly as the understudy to Jones. But that changed this week when Jones began dealing with what coach Josh McDaniels described as a “personal matter.”
The situation has kept Jones away from the team all week, and his availability for Sunday’s game is uncertain. If he can’t play, Wilson’s role could change from understudy to leading man.
“It’s the next-man-up mentality,” Wilson said. “No matter what, I’ve got to put the best out there for my brothers so we get the best defense out there.”
Wilson isn’t the only rookie the Raiders expect to contribute.
Jakorian Bennett, who manned the starting perimeter cornerback spot opposite Marcus Peters throughout training camp, is in line to play a featured role. Tight end Michael Mayer is expected to get heavy playing time alongside Austin Hooper. And wide receiver Tre Tucker will get rotational snaps as part of the revamped wide receiver corps.
As opposed to recent seasons when the Raiders turned to rookies more out of necessity than merit, this group has earned playing time with strong training camps and preseason performances.
“That’s one of the reasons they drafted me here, and that’s to make an impact,” said Mayer, who played at Notre Dame.
Hobbs described Bennett, a fourth-round pick from Maryland, as a player whose potential is unlimited.
“His ceiling is past his roof,” Hobbs said. “If he can just lock in and want to be great, which he does, I see a bright future for that kid.”
Tucker, a third-round pick from Cincinnati, has made a strong impression from day one with his speed and athletic ability. Listed at 5 feet, 9 inches and 185 pounds, he is more of a weapon than just a wide receiver. And playing alongside established veterans such as Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Renfrow should free up room for him to take advantage.
“Tre is one of my favorite rookies I’ve ever had,” Adams said. “Obviously, he’s a crazy talent out there. He’s got speed and a lot of things that are tough to coach.”
As one would imagine, the mixture of nerves, anticipation and responsibility is palpable.
“It’s just kind of surreal because I always dreamed of this moment,” Bennett said.
Tucker is trying to keep the focus as narrow as possible.
“Being the best version of myself, because if I’m the best version of myself, I can help the team,” he said.
All nine draft picks made the 53-man roster, and depending on how the Raiders formulate their game-day roster Sunday, there could be room for defensive linemen Nesta Jade Silvera and Byron Young, linebacker Amari Burney and safety Christopher Smith to contribute.
There’s also fourth-round quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who is on a development path that could establish him as Jimmy Garoppolo’s primary backup this season and eventually his successor.
The learning curve for the entire class is ongoing, including the transition from training camp to the regular season.
“There’s another element of teaching that they’re going to go through,” McDaniels said. “How to go through a regular-season week, how to understand an opponent, how to learn a game plan. That process is going to be new to all of them, too.”
Who: Raiders at Broncos
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Empower Field at Mile High
Radio: KRLV-AM (920), KOMP-FM (92.3)
Line: Broncos -3½; total 44½