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5 things to watch for Oakland Raiders in preseason opener

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 30: Oakland Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio during an NFL football game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 30, 2016, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL . (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)
Roy K. Miller/Icon SportswireI

The Oakland Raiders begin their 2017 push for the Super Bowl on Saturday night at the Arizona Cardinals in their first preseason game.

Of course, we won’t see a ton of the critical players in Oakland’s Super Bowl push in this game. Still, there several key players, issues and positions for Oakland to keep an eye on. Let’s take a look:

Health

Sorry to keep it so simple, but if you were sipping a beer with Raiders coach Jack Del Rio on the flight down to Phoenix and asked him his top goal for the trip, he’d tell you it would be to get back on the plane with no injuries. Injuries are always a bummer in the NFL. But preseason injuries sting even more, because they are look at as so unnecessary. It affects the season before it even starts.

That’s why you’ll notice a lot of Oakland starters on the sideline in this game and the starters who play will only make a cameo appearance against the Cardinals. Stars such as defensive end Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper have been sitting out recent practices, nursing injuries. Oakland will surely not play them in Arizona. Even quarterback Derek Carr is iffy to play. Why risk key players this early?

The rookies

A lot of the rookies have been dealing with nagging injuries. The Raiders’ first two picks, cornerback Gereon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu, are out and aren’t expected to play. Third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes has had an active camp. He missed a day of practice with a minor knee issue, so the team may be cautious. But if Vanderdoes plays against the Cardinals, the Raiders will be watching him closely.

Oakland Raiders third round draft pick Eddie Vanderdoes, right, talks to the media following NFL football rookie minicamp, Friday, May 5, 2017, at Raiders headquarters in Alameda, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

(AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

They are hoping he makes an instant impact this year and provides an interior pass rush with Mario Edwards. Also, fifth-round pick Marquel Lee has been working with the first team at middle linebacker. Let’s see how he does. He has been good against the run in camp. If he plays well in the preseason, he will start as a rookie. It begins against the Cardinals.

Tackles

If Carr doesn’t play, it may be a direct result of left tackle Donald Penn’s holdout. He has stayed away for the first two weeks of training camp because he wants a raise. There is no end to the Raiders-Penn stalemate in sight. Marshall Newhouse, who is supposed to be the right tackle, has been playing left tackle, and Vadal Alexander is starting at right tackle.

They both will be watched closely, as well as the backups. , Rookies David Sharpe and Jylan Ware both are coming off injuries, so they could be held out. The tackle situation is fluid in Oakland, and the coaches are anxious to see what happens in game action.

Defensive backs

The Raiders’ defensive backs have had an interesting first two weeks of practice. Starter Sean Smith, who signed a four-year, $40 million deal last year, was demoted to the second team last week and finally promoted to a starter again on Thursday. He needs to play well in the preseason or he could lose his job, especially once Conley gets healthy. Smith needs to start playing well.

Undrafted rookie Breon Borders will be interesting to watch. He has made it all the way up to the first-team nickel cornerback. That is because of injuries, but if he plays well in this game, it would be huge. Borders is still no lock to make the team. But that march begins in earnest at Arizona.

Offensive skill position backups

Cooper is not going to play. Running back Marshawn Lynch may not play, and he won’t play much if he does suit up. This game will be for receivers Seth Roberts, Cordarrelle Patterson and K.J. Brent, and running backs such as DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Most of these guys are going to be contributors during the season. The preseason will determine the spot in the rotation.

A battle to watch is who will emerge as Carr’s backup. E.J Manuel, a former first-round pick by Buffalo, has been beating out 2016 fourth-round pick Connor Cook (it is fair to point out that Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie traded up to take Cook over Dak Prescott), and it hasn’t been close. Still, Cook can change all that with a kick-butt preseason.

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