Introducing the Raiders' Man of a Thousand Faces: Rico Gafford

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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Who is Rico Gafford?

Depends upon that week's opponent.

Officially, Gafford is a rookie receiver from Wyoming on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad. Unofficially, he is the Raiders' Man of a Thousand Faces, the Master Mimic of Silver and Blackdom, who gives Oakland's defense a glimpse of what it will face that week as the featured player on the Raiders' "show" team offense.

In the lead-up to the game with the Los Angeles Chargers, Gafford played the role of receiver Keenan Allen.

Before the Indianapolis Colts came to town, Gafford pretended to be T.Y. Hilton.

A week later, Gafford made like he was San Francisco 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin -- before morphing into Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs receiver/returner Tyreek Hill and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown over the past three weeks.

"It just lets me know that the coaches, obviously, see something in me; they think that I somewhat compare to those guys when it comes time to give them a look," Gafford said.

"Being that guy obviously helps me get looked at and may help me when it comes time for me to get active, if that time comes. I just do whatever I can to improve every week and do what the coaches ask so I have a job next week."

Gafford laughed uncomfortably.

Because, of course, were Gafford as worldly as the aforementioned offensive threats, he would be on someone's 53-man roster. And yet, it is his versatility that keeps him employed -- that and speed that would have made the late Al Davis take notice.

Gafford was actually a cornerback at Wyoming, where he nearly stole Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen's shine at the school's pro day this past spring, blazing to an unofficial 40-time of 4.19 seconds, according to one scout in attendance, while the Casper Star-Tribune timed him at 4.26 and 4.23. And Gafford had a vertical jump of 36½ inches.

He signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted rookie on May 11 and spent training camp with them before getting waived on Sept. 1. Two days later, the Raiders signed Gafford to their practice squad.

"Everybody seems to have a dangerous return man, so you can put him back there and put a red dot on him and make sure everybody is aware of the danger that he brings," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Gafford. "Everybody is running jet sweeps. Everybody has a threat, most teams do at least, threading across the formation. We use him to do that. Obviously, most teams have some real deep speed, and we use him to do that.

"I'm excited about him because he seems to like football and really enjoy the challenge."

Now there's a fine line between being your own guy with your own skill set and goals in the NFL and, well, having job security as an impressionist of sorts.

Gafford, who had four interceptions with a pick-six last fall as a second-team all-Mountain West Conference selection for Wyoming, realizes this and is steadily straddling that line as an impressionist.

"It comes down to what you're doing to help the team out every week," Gafford said. "I have my own skill set; but when it comes down to being those guys every week, there's a comparison, because while we're not the same speed, we are fast."

He studies video of those players he will mimic at the beginning of the week. An added side effect is that he actually is adding those players' moves to his own tool box, so to speak.

"It's like, 'OK, I've seen this route on film, so let me do it this way, let me do it the way he did it, so they get the best look,'" Gafford said of Oakland's defense.

Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther offered his take.

"Any time you can have a young guy who can really work on what he's trying to work on and have that speed in practice is critical," Guenther said. "Because it's hard sometimes to match the speed of the game of some of the guys, and he's a guy that we have on our practice squad who can give us those things. It's helped us tremendously."

Yes, Gafford has caught the attention of Oakland's coaching staff with his unusual role.

"As a rookie," Gafford said, "you're hoping that this practice squad deal is just helping me get better and better, and then when it comes to next season, hopefully I have a chance to be on the team."

Then some future Raiders opponent might have to imitate him in practice.