Raiders: 3 rookie matchups to watch vs. Miami Dolphins

With just two preseason games remaining, the regular season is just around the corner for the Las Vegas Raiders and the rest of the NFL. That also means the training camp position battles are about to come to an end, making Saturday’s game against the Miami Dolphins one of the last chances Raiders rookies will have to prove their worth.

For some, their spots on the roster are intact and these next two bouts are all about competing for position on the depth chart and preparing for the coming months. But for others, time is running out and it’s time to hold on or shut up.

Zach Van Valkenburg vs. Kellen Diesh

Zach VanValkenburg
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

How about we kick off our rookie matchups with a battle between two undrafted free agents and two guys on the roster bubble?

VanValkenburg has been one of the Raiders’ standouts so far this preseason, especially against the run. His defense rating of 78.5 runs professional soccer focus not only does he lead the team, but he also ranks fifth among rim defenders in the entire league, with a minimum of five plays against the run. Additionally, he has made two career stops at a rate of 28.6 percent, which is good enough to tie for second and third in the position, respectively, and hasn’t missed an inning this month.

However, what keeps the former Hawkeye low on the depth chart is his quick passing skills. In 26 opportunities, he recorded just one rush, a quarterback rush, and posted a below-average 59.2 rating in the pass rush. That was one of his problems coming out of Iowa, and he faces a tough test in that department against the Dolphins.

At Arizona State, Diesch allowed just 11 pressures in two seasons and gave up the fewest (eight) among Pac 12 tackles in 2021, one spot ahead of Seattle Seahawks third-round pick Abraham Lucas. The Sun Devil also posted an 89.4 PFF pass block rating which was sixth best at his position in all of FBS.

But the main reason Diesch skipped out on the NFL Draft is that his run-blocking prowess wasn’t up to par. That should make for an interesting matchup between him and VanValkenburg, pitting their respective strengths and weaknesses against each other. For both boys, it’s a chance to show their coaches how much they’ve grown since their college days.

Brittain Brown vs. Channing Tindall

NFL: Minnesota Vikings vs. Las Vegas Raiders

brittany brown
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After missing the Hall of Fame game, Brown made his NFL debut last week against the Vikings. He put together a solid outing with 14 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown, with 38 yards coming after contact that was tied for fifth among running backs.

But still, the UCLA product faces an uphill battle to make the list.

Josh Jacobs, Brandon Bolden and Zamir White will likely have their spots intact, while Ameer Abdullah and Kenyan Drake are fighting for a seat in the meeting room. Even if coach Josh McDaniels decides to keep five running backs, Brown is on the outside looking in and behind the eight ball having missed the team’s first preseason game.

If he’s going to have any chance of sticking around next month, he’s going to have to prove himself in the passing game, either as a receiver or pass protection. That’s a requirement for running backs in McDaniels’ system and, so far, it’s been missing from the former Bruin’s game.

While he only had a few chances last week, Brown posted a 49.4 pass-blocking rating and only caught two passes for seven yards with no first downs or touchdowns. Plus, he struggled in those areas in college, posting pass protection marks between 20 and 30 the last four seasons and catching fewer than 10 passes in three of the last four.

Unfortunately, things won’t get much easier for Brown this week. Tindall was one of the best coverage linebackers in the country last season, ranking 14th in all of FBS with an 81.9 coverage rating and allowing only 72 yards in 15 games when he was attacked. That trend continued during the preseason last week, posting an elite coverage rating of 90.5 and giving up just five yards in coverage.

As a pass-rusher, the Georgia product racked up 5.5 sacks and 26 pressures in 2021. The latter ranked tied for fourth among SEC linebackers, and his 28.8 percent win rate was 11th-best at the position in the country.

So, Brown has his hands full on Saturday, but a strong performance could draw the attention of the Raiders’ coaching staff or another team in the league.

Also, we could be set for a battle between two varsity teammates with White and Tindall.

Sam Webb vs. erik ezukanma

Jacksonville Jaguars v Las Vegas Raiders

sam webb
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

An undrafted free agent from a Division II school, Webb is the definition of an underrated prospect. Hard to miss, though, he’s just over six feet tall and weighs 201 pounds at the combine, both of which were almost in the 90th percentile for a corner. Perhaps even more impressive, he can move.

Webb posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds in February, along with a 6.94-second three-cone jump, 42.5 vertical inches and 11.25 feet wide. All of that earned him an RAS score of 9.33, which falls in between the likes of former first-round picks Jalen Ramsey and Jeff Okudah.

But the Missouri Western State alum isn’t just someone who stands out in the underwear Olympics, he’s been one of the Raiders’ best corners this preseason. In five targets, he allowed just two receptions for 15 yards and a 47.9 passer rating, while also managing one pass breakup. However, Webb could be in for the biggest test of him yet, as a 6’2”, 209-pound receiver awaits him.

Ezukanma is a fine athlete in his own right, posting a 7.05 RAS at the combine, with an impressive 36.5-inch vertical that helped him rank fourth among the 12 big receivers with nine contested receptions last season. And that wasn’t just a volume stat, his 56.3 percent success rate on such goals was good enough for seventh in the conference.

The Texas Tech product can also make plays after the catch. In 2021, his 7.8 YAC per reception ranked second at his position in the conference, and his 11 forced missed tackles were tied for fifth. Adding another feather to his cap, this latest figure was lower than the previous year, where he had 14 and ranked third.

In other words, get ready to see a battle between two physical specimens in South Beach this weekend.

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