For a brief moment, the NFL Network broadcast caught a glimpse of Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler checking out the running backs as they ran the 40-yard dash Friday, which means he saw a collection of quality talent on the second day of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Assuming Ziegler had a front-row seat on Thursday, he probably took notes on a couple of standout wide receivers as well.
In 2021, Vegas ranked sixth in passing and 11th in total yards, but Ziegler shouldn’t ignore any offensive position other than quarterback and tight end early in the draft, especially with a bottom-tier ground attack that racked up the fifth-fewest yards.
Over the past two days, prospects who play positions on offense had the spotlight at the combine and several raised their draft stock. The Raiders should have a handful of them high on their big board.
Among the combine standouts, who’s a good fit for the Las Vegas Raiders’ biggest needs on offense? We’ll go through five names that should be on Ziegler’s radar.
James Cook, RB, Georgia
Take a moment to look at the New England Patriots’ offensive personnel under Josh McDaniels. Whether it’s Dion Lewis, James White or Brandon Bolden this past season, he’s had a backup running back with a prominent role in the short passing game. You can trace that offensive staple back to the 2006-08 seasons with Kevin Faulk.
Vegas has running backs Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake under contract for the 2022 term, but beyond next season, McDaniels will likely look for a new RB2 even if he exercises the fifth-year option on Jacobs’ contract.
The Raiders may keep Drake because of the $5.5 million dead cap hit on his deal if they release him. Even so, McDaniels shouldn’t pass up on Cook if he slips past the third round.
On Friday, Cook showed off his natural pass-catching skills at the combine. He caught the ball like an experienced receiver in the open field and made smooth cuts in the agility drills, keeping his head up and his feet moving with possession of the ball.
At Georgia, Cook didn’t run up his mileage, recording just 230 carries for 1,503 yards and 14 touchdowns through four years. In McDaniels’ system, he doesn’t have to become a workhorse. The pass-catching back just needs to fill a specific role as a complementary playmaker who spells the featured ball-carrier and serves as a reliable option on passing downs.
Related: NFL combine positional preview
Zion Johnson, OL, Boston College
The Raiders need offensive line help, specifically on the right side, but they may consider an upgrade over left guard John Simpson to bolster the ground attack. If team brass slides back multiple spots or targets a prospect at a non-premium position with the 22nd overall pick, Zion Johnson will probably be available.
Johnson has worked his way into the first-round conversation in this year’s draft. Believe it or not, he started out as a zero-star recruit who went to Davidson’s FCS program before a transfer to Boston College in 2019. Since then, the versatile lineman has molded himself into a top prospect.
At Boston College, Johnson played guard and tackle on the left side of the line and took some reps at center during Senior Bowl week in February. He possesses the drive to improve himself with every chance and all that hard work paid off at the combine.
For the most part, Johnson logged impressive workout numbers and moved well for a 6’3″, 312-pounder.
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah used a word to describe the Boston College standout that’s often linked to Patriots players: smart.
With Johnson’s high football IQ, the Raiders’ coaching staff could give him reps at both guard positions to see where he fits in the offensive line puzzle.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
On Thursday, Chris Olave had one of the most impressive combine performances among all the participants. He clocked a 4.39-second 40-yard dash time, but more importantly, the Ohio State product showed great concentration and ball-tracking skills in the receiving drills.
In the gauntlet drill above, Olave didn’t veer toward the ball and break his stride to make the catch. He ran down the line and caught the ball with his hands out in front of him away from his body, which are signs of a confident pass-catcher.
On a deep throw from Nevada’s Carson Strong, Olave gets under the ball, extends without leaving his feet and finishes the play. Obviously, on the pro level, this isn’t going to look that easy, but you can see him do this on film as a Buckeye.
The Raiders need a wideout who brings speed as a vertical threat on the perimeter. Olave checks both boxes. And despite his slender body frame (6’0″, 187 lbs), he scored 12-plus touchdowns for the 2019 and 2021 terms.
Trevor Penning fits the Las Vegas Raiders mold
Trevor Penning started to build a buzz during Senior Bowl week because of his tenacity and relentless motor.
When asked to describe his playing style, he sounded like an old-school Raider.
“Physical. Nasty. Prick,” Penning said before drawing a comparison between himself and Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson.Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning on playing mentality
The Raiders need someone like that on the right side of their offensive line. Alex Leatherwood has great athleticism, but he hasn’t shown a high level of feistiness, which the Raiders had with Richie Incognito at left guard for 14 games between 2019 and 2020.
If Leatherwood moves inside, he can pair up with Penning to give the unit a mix of athleticism and strength with a big splash of nasty on the outside. Don’t sleep on the latter’s physical tools though. At the combine, the Northern Iowa product had a 9.93 out 10 on his relative athletic score (RAS) via MathBomb.
After Friday’s showing, Penning may have solidified a spot in the top 20 slots slightly outside the Raiders’ reach at No. 22, but coming from an FCS program, teams may have doubts about his transition into the pros because of the leap in week-to-week competition. If so, Ziegler should roll the dice on him in an effort to revamp the offense inside-out.
Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State
At 6’4″, 208 pounds, Christian Watson ran a blazing 4.36-second 40-yard time on Thursday. He caught everyone’s attention with that number, though the North Dakota State product looked exceptionally smooth as a pass-catcher.
Coming out of an FCS program, Watson didn’t shrink on the big stage among his peers at Indianapolis. Aside from Ohio State’s Chris Olave, the tall speedy receiver had the best hands among the wideouts. He looked composed in the pass-catching drills and didn’t drop a catchable ball thrown his way.
Even at his height, he’s not a stiff, scoring a 9.98 out of 10 on his relative athletic score, per MathBomb.
While some fans may ask what would happen to wideout Bryan Edwards if the Las Vegas Raiders select Watson, understand they bring different elements to the offense.
Compared to Edwards, Watson comes into the league as a superior athlete who’s more equipped to stretch the field with his game speed. The latter averaged 20.4 yards per catch as a collegian.
On the flip side, Watson lacks the play strength to consistently win on contested catches, which is a calling card for Edwards in one-on-one situations. The Raiders would have two big targets with unique skill sets—both useful to the passing attack.
Maurice Moton covers the Las Vegas Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.