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October 24, 2021

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Wide receiver looms as ‘most difficult decision’ for Raiders’ final roster cuts

Are John Brown, Willie Snead and Zay Jones safe to make 53-man roster?

Aug. 6: Raiders Training Camp

Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (11) runs with the ball during the Raiders Training Camp at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center in Henderson Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. STEVE MARCUS

Willie Snead had never made it over to Allegiant Stadium until earlier this month when the Raiders held their one public preseason practice on their homefield.

The slot wide receiver, who signed with Las Vegas as a free agent in March, couldn’t help but envision what the venue would look like when the Raiders open the season there against the Ravens on Sept. 13.

“It’s going to be surreal,” he said. “The last team I played for was the Ravens and the first team I play for the Raiders will be the Ravens.”

Snead hopefully hasn’t made too many steadfast plans ahead of the game because he hasn’t quite made the Raiders’ 53-man roster yet. The 28-year-old still looks likely to make the team, but offensive coordinator Greg Olson struck some doubt Thursday for all the wide receivers towards the back of the depth chart ahead of the team’s final preseason game Sunday at San Francisco.

Olson gave a surprising answer when asked which unit would be the toughest to evaluate ahead of final roster cuts on Aug. 31.

“There’s great competition at the wide receiver position,” Olson said. “That will probably be the most difficult decision, will be making the cuts at the wide receiver position.”

Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow might be the only receivers completely safe to make the team. Las Vegas has openly built its passing attack around how their skillsets mesh next to tight end Darren Waller.

John Brown, Zay Jones and Snead would seem to be the next three receivers in line to make the roster, but perhaps that’s not as guaranteed as perceived given Olson's comments. Las Vegas also still currently has wide receivers Keelan Doss, Dillon Stoner and D.J. Turner at training camp.

“(Stoner’s) a guy who’s showed up at the practice facility, haven’t seen him as much in the preseason games but we’ll try to take a good luck at him this weekend,” Olson said. “But he’s a guy that’s jumped out at us as a strong developmental player. We like the player so he’s definitely going to be in the mix.”

Stoner, a rookie undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State, could merit a practice squad consideration if he’s cut and clears waivers. The practice squad is where Doss has landed the last two years, but the 25-year-old has shown flashes that he’s capable of more this training camp.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden, Olson and the rest of the coaching staff must also weigh special teams contributions into their final roster. That’s an area where Stoner could contribute and particularly where they’ve mostly used Turner, an undrafted rookie out of Pittsburgh by way of Maryland.

Turner has returned punts in training camp, and though he’s fielded them well in games, he’s had some handle issues in practice. That ostensibly helps to make him the longest-shot to snag a roster spot, but it’s hard to know for sure.

“I just try to work as hard as I possibly can,” Jones said after a preseason win over the Seahawks where he had three catches for 57 yards. “That’s all I’ve known since a very young age so coming up, I just try to work as hard as I can and put me in position, it doesn’t promise you anything; it just allows for an opportunity maybe to arise.”

Jones made the team last year and has drawn praise from Gruden on multiple occasions throughout training camp. He also has the third-highest cap hit among the receivers behind Ruggs and Brown.

Jones has played well in both preseason contests, but it’s just as notable that he was on the field to begin with when most of the other veterans have been held out entirely.

“We’ve had a lot of teamwork against our defense,” Olson said when asked about the decision not to play Ruggs, Edwards, Renfrow or Brown. “We kind of feel like we’ve had a chance to see those guys and evaluate them.”

So confident are the Raiders in their current group that they cut the player who made what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown and led the team in receiving against the Rams two days later. Marcell Ateman, a former Raiders’ seventh-round pick, became the first receiver domino to fall on Monday when he was released.

He won’t be the last, but now there’s a little more suspense on who exactly will be.

“That group of receivers in there, we feed off of each other, always trying to make each other better,” Snead said. “The competition is healthy. Every day we come in with an attitude to get better and I have nothing but the utmost respect for those guys.”