Las Vegas Raiders: 3 players who could transition from backup to starter during the 2024 season, including Gardner Minshew

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In a couple of weeks, the Las Vegas Raiders will report to training camp, and competition will heat up at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa. Keep in mind that some players could lose an initial battle but eventually take over starting roles in the regular season.

The Raiders have a couple of key battles to monitor in the coming weeks and other spots could open up based on the coaching staff’s assessment of the team’s progress through the preseason. Coaches evaluate players every week, so a few starters shouldn’t get too comfortable if they’re at the top of the depth chart by the end of the summer.

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With that in mind, let’s look at three Raiders who could go into the 2024 season as a No. 2 or backup option and finish the season in a starting position.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew

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Going into training camp, Aidan O’Connell has a “slight edge” over Gardner Minshew for the starting job, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

Even if O’Connell maintains his reported spot in the pole position for the lead role, he may have to look over his shoulder throughout the 2024 season. The Raiders signed Minshew to a sizable two-year, $25 million contract, which includes $15 million in guaranteed money.

During head coach Antonio Pierce’s introductory press conference, he jokingly said the expectation for the offense is to score at least 24 points in games this season. 

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Pierce laughed after that comment, but if the Raiders offense doesn’t show much improvement from last year and O’Connell struggles to move the ball through the air, the coaching staff may be willing to give Minshew a shot to provide an offensive spark with his ability to make something out of nothing on broken plays.

Last year, after taking over the starting job in Week 9, O’Connell showed improvement between most weeks. Aside from a clunker against the Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Day, he posted respectable passing numbers in the last four weeks of the season, throwing for at least 244 yards and two touchdowns in three of those outings. 

The Raiders are likely intrigued by what O’Connell could be after taking first-team reps in the offseason, but they shouldn’t handcuff themselves to him if he regresses in the first half of the upcoming campaign.

Remember, with the Indianapolis Colts last year, Minshew played fairly well as a fill-in starter for Anthony Richardson.  Minshew can’t match O’Connell in arm strength, but he can keep plays alive a little longer with his legs.

Cornerback Decamerion Richardson 

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On defense, the Las Vegas Raiders have a wide-open competition at cornerback. Seventh-year veteran Brandon Facyson and second-year man Jakorian Bennett are the top two contenders for the job. In an ideal circumstance, Bennett outright wins the battle. Going into his age-24 campaign, he could lock down that position for the foreseeable future. 

Facyson, who turns 30 in September, isn’t the long-term solution to a key position of need on the boundary. If the coaching staff isn’t thrilled with its top two cornerback options opposite Jack Jones, Decamerion Richardson could start at some point in the upcoming campaign.

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At 6-2, 195 pounds with 4.34 speed, Richardson has the physical tools to make some spectacular plays, but as Bleacher Report’s Cory Giddings noted in a scouting report, the Mississippi State product must tighten up on his technique.

“When in his pedal, there were times where he showed hesitation getting out of his breaks,” Giddings wrote. “Though he has excellent speed to carry receivers deep, he struggled stopping and starting, along with sinking his hips at the top of routes.”

If Richardson is too much of a raw talent to see the field in the upcoming campaign, the Raiders could turn their attention to his draftmate, M.J. Devonshire.

Similar to Bennett last year, Richardson’s athleticism and potential upside likely drew the Raiders’ attention.  If Facyson falls behind, Bennett and Richardson, a couple of recent fourth-rounders, could jockey for the starting position in the middle of the season.

Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao

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After two years on and off the practice squad with few live opportunities, is it time for Isaiah Pola-Mao to break out? Senior defensive assistant Rob Ryan thinks that’s the case. In two seasons, Pola-Mao has played 210 defensive snaps. He’s made most of his contributions on special teams.

Last offseason, the Raiders signed Marcus Epps and drafted Chris Smith II in the fifth round, which pushed Pola-Mao to the back of the team’s safety rotation. This year, the Raiders could look to find Epps’ replacement late in the second half of the campaign. He’s going to turn 29 in January and has an expiring contract.

As a rookie, Smith only played 22 defensive snaps. Pola-Mao can carve out a role for himself unless the team prefers to see what rookie seventh-rounder Trey Taylor can do alongside Tre’von Moehrig. 

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Pola-Mao knows Patrick Graham’s system well, working with him since 2022. Perhaps Graham finds a way to use the 6-4, 205-pound defender as a pure safety or in a hybrid linebacker-safety role to match up against an increasing number of pass-catching tight ends around the league.

Graham could find a way to use Pola-Mao in three-safety defensive looks (big nickel formation), which may allow the third-year pro to blossom in a much bigger role during the regular season.

Maurice Moton covers the Las Vegas Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.

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