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Evaluating the 2023 Las Vegas Raiders rookie class

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HENDERSON, Nev. -- For just the fifth time since 2009 -- but the second since 2020 -- the Las Vegas Raiders failed to place a single player on the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team.

Even with a nine-man draft class, including the No. 7 overall selection, and a rookie quarterback who started 10 games and went 5-4 down the stretch.

That's not to say the cupboard was bare for Las Vegas in 2023, a season that began with Dave Ziegler as general manager and Josh McDaniels as coach. In fact, new G.M. Tom Telesco, who acknowledged he had to do a deep dive into the entire roster upon his hiring, and coach Antonio Pierce, who had the interim tag removed and the full-time gig assigned, might actually like several of the rookies going forward.

"It's just a big difference knowing them as opponents and knowing them as the GM of this team," said Telesco, who spent the previous 11 seasons as the Los Angeles Chargers' G.M. "Got a lot of work to do coming up here, but, thankfully, A.P. is here, so that's going to make the transition a lot smoother."

As in, Pierce already having in-depth knowledge of the Raiders' roster in general, the rookie class of 2023 in particular.

Raiders rookies played 3,065 snaps (including special teams) in 2023, which ranked 20th out of 32 teams in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

As such, 1,591 of those snaps came on offense, which were the 19th-most in the league, with 1,107 snaps on defense, 20th most.

Of course, any discussion of the rookie class begins with Pierce's self-described "BFF" at QB, Aidan O'Connell. The final pick of the fourth round at No. 135 overall, O'Connell seemed an afterthought at the time, a need pick with a run of QBs being selected. O'Connell was the eighth QB taken overall, the third in a run of five signal-callers selected between Nos. 127 and 140.

And when Pierce was elevated from linebackers coach to interim head coach on Nov. 1, the first move he made was to replace veteran Jimmy Garoppolo with O'Connell, who only missed three snaps the rest of the season and finished with a passer rating of 83.9 and a Total QBR of 40.5, numbers that ranked fifth and second among all rookie QBs who played at least nine games, respectively.

O'Connell's 2,218 passing yards, 12 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and 62.1% completion rate ranked third, tied for second, second-most and fourth, among rookies to have played at least nine games.

"I thought we saw growth with Aidan," Pierce said. "I thought at the end of the season he was playing some really good football that led to some wins for us ... he put himself in a position to learn what it's like to be a pro in the offseason because he could reflect on what he just did."

Two pass-catchers also helped O'Connell develop in tight end Michael Mayer, selected in the second round at No. 35 overall, and speedy slot receiver Tre Tucker, drafted in the third round at No. 100.

Mayer, who missed the Raiders' final three games with a toe injury, played 607 snaps on offense and caught 27 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns, which ranked fourth, fifth, fifth and tied for second among rookie tight ends, respectively.

His presence immediately caught the attention of incoming offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who compared him to a certain Chicago Bears tight end with a shared Notre Dame heritage.

"The cool thing about [Mayer] is that a little bit like Cole [Kmet], he's a cool blend at tight end, he can do a little bit of everything," Getsy said. "Anytime that you're evaluating players, you're trying to see how diverse they can be, the flexibility with a player just allows you to be more dynamic as an offense, and I think that's what's really exciting in my working with Michael."

Mayer's block win-rate of 88.6% was solid compared to rookie TEs, and his run-block win rate of 71.5% was fourth of the nine rookie tight ends with at least 100 opportunities.

Tucker, who has 4.4 40 speed in the 40-yard dash, was O'Connell's favorite deep threat, averaging 17.4 yards per catch, the best among NFL rookies with at least 34 targets. He caught 19 passes for 331 yards and a pair of TDs in 16 games.

Defensively, third-round defensive tackle Byron Young played only six games as an oft-healthy scratch.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas' final three draft picks -- safety Chris Smith II, linebacker Amari Burney and defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera -- played a combined 21 games ... with one start.

Indeed, the most impactful -- in the broadest, most generous sense of the word -- defensive rookies for the Raiders were cornerback Jakorian Bennett, a fourth-rounder taken No. 104 overall, and edge rusher Tyree Wilson, who may not have lived up to the hype of a No. 7 draft pick but steadily improved as the season wore on.

Bennett started the first four games, playing every snap in two of the first three, before being relegated to role player status and finishing with 341 defensive snaps.

Wilson, coming off a season-ending right foot injury at Texas Tech in 2022 and ensuing surgeries, was not expected to contribute much right away. But Chandler Jones' off-the-field issues and ensuing release sped up Wilson's clock.

As Pierce said, it took the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Wilson a while to get going but once defensive coordinator Patrick Graham started scheming Wilson up -- Graham moved Wilson all over the Raiders' defensive front, including over the center -- he became a valuable piece that commanded attention. Enough to help free up defensive end Malcolm Koonce to get a career-high 8.0 sacks, while second-team All-Pro Maxx Crosby was able to tally a career-best 14.5 sacks.

Wilson, who led Raiders defensive rookies with 472 defensive snaps, finished with 3.5 sacks, tied for the eighth-most among all NFL rookies, with 2.5 coming after Pierce took over. Wilson's pass-rush win rate of 4.9% was 11th, and last, among all qualified rookies on the D-line, though. (Houston Texans defensive end Will Anderson Jr. led with a 25.6% win rate.)

It's highly likely that the Raiders' 2023 rookie class will lose at least one player this offseason. And with the NFL scouting combine happening this week in Indianapolis, Telesco and Pierce are already doing research for their first rookie class.

"As far as roster construction, there's no one specific way to build a team," Telesco said. "I do believe in the draft, and everybody always says that anyways, but I do believe in the draft."