ALAMEDA (AP) — There’s been one pleasant surprise in what’s otherwise been a disappointing rookie class for the Oakland Raiders.
While top picks Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu have spent most of the season on the sideline injured and most of the rest of the nine-player draft class has had more limited roles, undrafted linebacker Nicholas Morrow has made an impressive transition from Division III football to the NFL.
Morrow has gone from playing in front of only a few hundred fans each game at Greenville College to lining up alongside four-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman in sold-out NFL stadiums in a meteoric rise that has even taken Morrow by surprise.
“I came in here and I was late for OTAs. There were some days I only got two reps,” he said. “I started off training camp in group four. My expectations have been way more than exceeded. I’m definitely blessed.”
The Raiders (6-7) are fortunate to have Morrow as well. After getting spot work in passing situations early in the season, Morrow has turned into an every-down linebacker the past few weeks after Cory James went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Morrow’s speed has helped him match up in coverage against tight ends and running backs and he allowed just two catches for 14 yards in 31 coverage snaps last week against Kansas City, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The one thing that’s always stood out about Nick is he’s fast,” defensive play-caller John Pagano said. “He can run. He has great speed. ...The amount of plays that he’s played has been outstanding. He’s still a rookie. He still goes through those little mistakes, but he’s doing a great job right now.”
Morrow got nearly as many snaps on defense last week with 63 as the entire draft class got combined on offense and defense with 67. That lack of production has been a big reason why Oakland (6-7) has been a disappointment this season after winning 12 games a year ago.
General manager Reggie McKenzie focused the draft on improving the defense, especially in the secondary, but he hasn’t gotten the results he wanted. Conley was picked first with the expectations of locking down a cornerback spot.
But he injured his shin in minicamp in June and missed all of training camp. He worked his way back and showed flashes in two games early in the season before re-injuring the shin and getting shut down for the season.
Melifonwu was supposed to step right in at safety where his athleticism would help solve the Raiders’ problems with guarding tight ends. But a leg injury in training camp sidelined him for the first eight games.
He got limited time in his debut in Miami in Week 9 before being thrust into a starting role at cornerback in Mexico City against the Patriots. He struggled in the new role and has gotten just one snap on defense the past three weeks.
“With rookies, anytime there’s a growth, sometimes it’s you just keep building each and every day,” Pagano said. You “come to work. You lean on the veterans to learn certain things because there’s always highs and lows in this profession. I think the one thing Obi has done is he’s come to work every day. Keeps preparing and he’s ready for the next opportunity.”
Oakland has gotten a little bit of contribution from defensive tackles Eddie Vanderdoes and Treyvon Hester, taken in the third and seventh rounds, respectively. Both have been rotation players but have no sacks and have done little to boost the interior pass rush.
Fifth-round linebacker Marquel Lee began the season as the starter but an early injury and the signing of Bowman have relegated him to a special teams role. Safety Shalom Luani, taken in the seventh round, has also played mostly on special teams.
The three offensive players taken were tackles David Sharpe and Jylan Ware, and running back Elijah Hood. Those three have combined for three snaps on offense all season, with Hood spending most of the time on the practice squad and Sharpe and Ware viewed as projects.
NOTES: CB David Amerson, who has missed six straight games with a foot injury, didn’t practice after being limited earlier in the week. ... OL Jon Feliciano (concussion) and DL Denico Autry (hand, ankle) returned on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday.
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