ALAMEDA (AP) — After failing to hear his name called during last spring’s NFL draft, Denver Kirkland’s number is getting called quite often for the Oakland Raiders this season.
Kirkland has gone from the disappointment of being undrafted despite leaving Arkansas early to making the Raiders initially as a practice squad player to becoming a key contributor as Oakland’s extra offensive lineman.
Kirkland played nearly half the offensive snaps against Denver on Nov. 6 as the sixth lineman for the Raiders (7-2), with each entry onto the field accompanied by the announcement by the referee that No. 79 is an eligible receiver.
“It’s been fun,” Kirkland said. “It’s just nice to be out there going to war with the boys I practice with every week.”
The season has been a lot more fun for Kirkland than the draft. He decided to leave Arkansas early but a poor performance at the combine led to him going undrafted.
Kirkland watched the draft with his family and tried not to get too discouraged.
“I just kept hope alive and I’m here now,” he said. “I always had a positive attitude. I didn’t want to get down on myself. Now I have to go even harder than ever.”
The Raiders showed interest in Kirkland even before the end of the draft, calling him to tell him they wanted him as an undrafted free agent if no team took him.
Kirkland got calls from other teams after the draft but chose the Raiders because of their early interest. The coaching staff liked what they saw from Kirkland once he arrived.
“Denver’s been a big, physical guy, tough guy,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “We were drawn to him in camp, thought there were some things that were worth developing and that development, obviously, has been accelerated a little bit with him being on the field as much as he is now.”
Kirkland got his chance after blocking tight end Lee Smith went on injured reserve with a lower-leg injury on Oct. 5. Kirkland had been promoted to the active roster the previous week because of injuries on the offensive line but didn’t get a chance to play until Smith’s injury.
With Oakland’s other tight ends, Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera, more skilled as receivers than blockers, the Raiders started utilizing the six-lineman package more often.
Kirkland played 27 snaps in his first game against San Diego on Oct. 9 and has looked right at home on the field as part of a line that has been one of the league’s best this season at both run and pass blocking.
“He’s such a good dude, he’s so quiet, and all he does is come to work and grind every single day,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “We knew from the beginning, we were like, ‘Man, this guy could be special. He could be a really good player.’ And so far, he’s come into games for us and he’s played outstanding.”
Kirkland got his most action against the Broncos when he played 42 snaps and was a key part of a running attack that gained 218 yards.
While Kirkland is being counted on mostly as an extra blocker, the Raiders do have a few pass plays in the playbook for him that he hopes get called soon.
“I got hands. I got good hands,” he said. “I hope so. That would be a great moment for me.”
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