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Raiders rookie class shows growth spurt, led by QB Aidan O’Connell

Updated November 13, 2023 - 5:54 pm

The Raiders were counting on their 2023 draft class to deliver immediate and long-range benefits. It’s taken awhile, but more and more, they are starting to feel the short-range impact.

Sunday’s 16-12 win over the Jets was a perfect example. The game’s biggest play was delivered by rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell and tight end Michael Mayer when they hooked up on what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Both rookies made great plays, with Mayer capping it by going up and over linebacker Jordan Whitehead to come up with the grab.

Mayer’s play had teammates talking in awe.

“We always talk top-shelf pullback, so he caught it, and you see everybody turned up because he did the top-shelf pullback,” running back Josh Jacobs said. “And that’s a testament to him for sure.”

Mayer, a second-round pick out of Notre Dame, has stood out from day one. But as the season has gone on, he has improved as a blocker while expanding his role in the passing game. His veteran teammates are taking notice.

“That dude is good, bro,” Jacobs said. “I think people sleep on how good he’s going to be. I don’t think it’s going unnoticed at practice every week, just because of the way he works, how professional he is as a rookie, the way he wants to be in the game, and he wants that moment.”

O’Connell, 2-1 as a starter after helping guide the Raiders to two straight wins, is also drawing compliments from teammates.

“He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “Dude is not a rookie. By years he is, but by action … that poise he has in those types of situations, you don’t see that often from a rookie quarterback.”

Mayer and O’Connell are not the only first-year players showing a growth spurt.

Jakorian Bennett came off the bench to deliver a critical performance in relief of cornerback Amik Robertson, who was knocked out of the game after taking a knee to the head in the first half.

Last week, rookie wide receiver Tre Tucker reeled in a 50-yard pass against the Giants, defensive end Tyree Wilson had the best game of his career, and linebacker Amari Burney came up with six tackles in relief of the injured Divine Deablo.

“Just keep naming them. They’re making plays now,” interim coach Antonio Pierce said. “They’re making headway. We don’t need them to be the guy making every play. But they’re making headway, and that’s going to help us in the long run.”

O’Connell is now entrenched as the starting quarterback. Mayer has taken over the first-team duties at tight end, Tucker and Wilson have rotational roles, and Bennett has fluctuated from a starter to a backup. Safety Christopher Smith, who was inactive through most of the season’s first quarter, has now solidified a special teams role.

Burney and defensive tackles Byron Jones and Nesta Jade Silvera are usually game-day decisions regarding their status. In the case of all three, the play of veterans in front of them has curtailed their playing time.

“If you’re a rookie, you gotta bring your ‘A’ game,” Pierce said. “It’s gotta be every day. And they’re getting there. You’ve seen we’ve kind of sprinkled them in here and there. But, as we’re on this stretch, we’ll do what’s best for the team. They understand that. They know their name can be called. Just be ready.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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