Players to Watch: Raiders Close Out Season Against Chiefs

This Raiders season has not gone according to plan. Optimism accompanied Jon Gruden’s return to the Silver and Black, as many believed Oakland was a good coach (or two) away from being a legitimate postseason contender.

However, the Raiders spent their fall contending for a high draft pick as losses piled sky high, which prompted a full-scale rebuild. Trading Khalil Mack set this season’s course, accelerated by the Amari Cooper deal and so many other veterans leaving in season. Reggie McKenzie was fired on Dec. 10, reportedly because of the Mack trade.

Winning games remained the Raiders’ primary focus, but the development and evaluation were vital while building for the future. It was also important figuring out which players would be part of Gruden’s long-term vision.

Gruden gave roster bonuses to Tahir Whitehead, Jordy Nelson, Lee Smith and Kyle Wilber this week, meaning that those four will be back despite not having guaranteed money in future years until those bonuses were paid.

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They’re coming back. So is quarterback Derek Carr. Despite some discussion to the contrary, Carr’s a virtual lock to be the team’s signal caller in 2019. He has shown real comfort running this offense, and will set several high-water marks for a quarterback working under Gruden.

Coaches have a solid idea of players not in next year’s plans, and one final game performance won’t change that. There are players who are locks to stay who can influence the level of competition added this offseason … or the priority level of the team’s search for an upgrade.

While coaches will evaluate a player’s entire body of work, there are several Raiders looking to make one last good impression on Sunday against Kansas City.

Here are a few who could improve their offseason standing with a strong finish.

WR Marcell Ateman

The seventh-round pick was thurst into the starting lineup out of necessity. Ateman was promoted off the practice squad after the Cooper trade, and played right away due to Cooper’s absence and a Martavis Bryant knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. Brandon LaFell ended up there as well during Ateman’s debut, so he has been heavily involved.

The Oklahoma State product isn’t quick but has made some plays. He has made some mental mistakes easily seen or only noticed by coaches on film. The receiver corps will get a complete overhaul around Jordy Nelson, and Ateman must try and show himself worthy of a spot higher on the depth chart. The Raiders could add receivers through free agency and the NFL draft, and leave Ateman fighting for a roster spot. Another solid game could give him a leg up this offseason when fighting for snaps.

RT Brandon Parker

Coaches are high on the rookie third-round pick, and believe he’ll be better with an offseason to gain strength and lean mass. He has made a fair share of mistakes, occasionally in bunches. He has had good moments and bad, with his strongest game Monday against Denver.

Parker will compete to retain his starting spot in 2019, though the intensity of his competition is uncertain. If the Raiders have faith in Parker, they won’t need to bring in a higher priced veteran and possibly let veteran Donald Penn walk.

If Parker struggles here at the end, that may push the Raiders to pay a bit more for a tackle with starting experience.

RB Doug Martin

Gruden loves Martin. Loves his rushing style. The Raiders head coach has already said he hopes to bring the Bay Area native back next season, though he didn’t specify the role. Martin was originally signed to be Marshawn Lynch’s backup, and barely touched the ball until Beast Mode was on injured reserve. Gruden might hope to bring him in as a backup behind a drafted player, or an established free agent who’s well known as a feature back (would Gruden pay Le’Veon Bell’s freight?). Or, Martin could be retained on a new contract as the No. 1 guy, ready to compete for carries with 2018 preseason wonder Chris Warren III.

Martin had his first triple-digit rushing total since 2015 on Monday against the Broncos, and a repeat would help his claim to being a legitimate two-down option in 2019. Gruden and staff will evaluate his entire body of work when arriving at a conclusion, but a strong last impression can’t hurt someone who re-established himself as a Raider in 2018.

Arden Key

The third-round rookie will be a prominent in the Raiders 2019 plans. Coaches know he’s ever so close to being a productive pass rusher, needing more strength, lean mass and finishing quality to wrack up the sacks and quarterback hits.

Ending the year with a positive moment or two would help him enter the offseason on a high note. The Raiders are going to add pass rushers, maybe two of them. Key must find his role within next season’s upgrades, and showing progress as a finisher – rookies often struggle getting quarterbacks to the ground – would put him in a good spot heading into the offseason.

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