NAPA (AP) — Reggie McKenzie has had a keen eye for unearthing undrafted rookie gems ever since arriving as Oakland Raiders general manager in 2012.
Former Duke cornerback Breon Borders looks like he could be the latest.
With first-round pick Gareon Conley sidelined all training camp by shin splints and last year’s big-ticket free agent acquisition Sean Smith getting a reduced role, Borders has made the most of his opportunity working as the slot cornerback with Oakland’s first-team defense.
“I’m glad I’m getting the reps,” Borders said. “I’m getting elite work. I’m going against elite receivers and an elite quarterback. There’s nothing else I can ask for.”
Borders has rewarded his coaches by making plays on the ball whenever he gets the chance and rarely looking out of place as he works against more established players.
Quarterback Derek Carr said Borders leaps off the film almost every day making a play, including a deflected interception in practice on Wednesday.
“I think that that’s how those guys catch your eye,” Carr said. “Throughout the offseason and here at camp, he’s really proven himself. The more guys that we can have like that that make plays, I’m all for it.”
Borders has quickly adjusted from the college game to the NFL where the receivers are bigger and faster, the quarterbacks have stronger arms and the stakes are much higher.
He has also had to adjust to a new position, playing mostly in the slot where short-area quickness is at a premium instead of on the outside where he played in college when he had 12 interceptions and 34 passes defensed in four seasons.
“The transition is challenging but it’s fun,” he said. “When I was at Duke, I played strictly to the field outside so I played in space. Now it’s all close quarters. I don’t have the sideline to help me out.”
Borders is getting plenty of help from veteran teammates like TJ Carrie, David Amerson and even Smith, who offers advice after almost every play in practice and in film sessions even though Borders’ emergence has pushed Smith down the depth chart early in camp.
Smith, who is guaranteed $9.25 million this season, struggled in his first season with the Raiders. Smith often got beaten deep and was a major reason why Oakland gave up an NFL-worst 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards last season.
The Raiders are now looking at using Smith to match up against tight ends in some six defensive back sets where his 6-foot-3 size could be an advantage.
But whether that lasts depends in part on how well Carrie plays in Smith’s role on the outside and if Borders can handle the slot role. The next test comes in the exhibition opener Saturday in Arizona.
“How you get here doesn’t matter,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “Once they get here, show us what they got. The first game is the biggest opportunity they’ve had so far.
Practice up to this point tells you a certain amount. Now how they respond in game conditions is huge.”
Oakland has had 10 undrafted rookies make the initial 53-man roster in McKenzie’s five years at the helm, including four last season.
The Raiders had 19 players on the team at the end of last season who entered the NFL as undrafted players, including key players like Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn, who started his career in Tampa Bay, reserve running back Jalen Richard, who shined as a rookie in 2016, and No. 3 receiver Seth Roberts , who has been a key contributor the past two seasons after spending his first year as a pro on the practice squad.
Borders learned about that history soon after he signed with the Raiders after the draft and has leaned on some of those former overlooked teammates for advice.
“If you play well, you’ll be on the field,” he said. “This is a great organization. Drafted or undrafted, you have to come ready to make the team and come ready to play football.”
NOTES: WR Amari Cooper and Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack remained sidelined and are unlikely to play Saturday. ... OL Jon Feliciano was activated from the physically unable to perform list.
More AP NFL: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL