Change swirls around Raiders special teams

The Oakland Raiders continued their final set of OTAs this week with the team working to sort out roles, especially within special teams.

Last season the Raiders led the league in punting yards, ranked 18th in punt returns, and finished next to last in field goals made, with 19.

Earlier this year the Raiders signed free agent former University of California Berkeley kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, which invited a whirlwind of speculation into the future of 15-year Raiders veteran Sebastian Janikowski.

Tavecchio wrapped up his college career as Cal’s fifth-leading scorer with 256 points, fourth among kickers. The former Golden Bear spent a brief moment in the Silver and Black during 2014 training camp, with his two 47-yard field goals in a preseason win against Seattle demonstrating his ability to make field goals in Janikowski’s range.

Since the start of the Raiders offseason program, head coach Jack Del Rio made it clear that there is competition at every spot on the team. When asked whether Janikowski had any competition for his spot, Del Rio said:

“Every year you have to come in, establish who you are and what your abilities are. I think he’s done that. I think he’s got several years left of performing at a high level. But no, he’s been a great teammate, showed up here and been here, participating a hundred percent and done everything we’ve asked. He’s been great. I think he’s ready to have a big year for us.”

Janikowski returns from a 2014 season where he attempted the fewest field goals in his career at 22, but made 19 to squeeze into the top 10 in field goal percentage. For the past two seasons — since the departure of punter and long-time holder Shane Lechler — the left-footed kicker has been unable to crack the top five kickers in the league.

The Silver and Black duo were drafted together in 2000 and as a tandem dominated the league for years, with the notable 2011 63-yard field goal made against the Denver Broncos that set an NFL record.

Del Rio said he feels Janikowski remains a force to be reckoned with as he enters his 16th season with the team:

“We were aware of the length of the kick, the potential game winner that he’s capable of. Some teams, they note that they have to get to the 30, 32, or 35, with him, he crosses midfield and he’s a threat.”

With week three of OTAs still rolling through, a big question remains on who will step into the starting kick returner position, which remains up for grabs. Rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, running backs Taiwan Jones, Latavius Murray and Trent Richardson all took turns Tuesday returning punts.

Rookie wide receiver and returner Andre Debose was also in the kick return mix until suffering an Achilles injury and being waived. Debose will head to injured reserve with the Raiders if not claimed by another team.

Oakland Wednesday signed free agent receiver and returner Trindon Holliday, a 5-foot-5 speedster who showed flashes of kick return brilliance with Houston and Denver but failed to stick with three teams in 2014 including San Francisco.

Tuesday’s set of OTAs continued to feature players adjusting to the new coaching system of Del Rio. Raiders’ linebacker Curtis Lofton said:

“If you’re not out there (field) the best thing you can do is study. The more you study the more you get a feel for the defense and I’ve played in defense like this before so I got a good understanding.”

He added:

“The offseason is the time for a team to pinpoint the problems and see what corrections can be made to improve. One thing that Del Rio has put a great emphasis on is changing the mentality of the players. … We’re going forward. We understand the work that needs to be put in and we’re full speed ahead. I know these guys really want to win and are willing to work, and we need to paint a picture and show them how to get there.”

Raiders tackle Donald Penn also spoke to the team’s new mentality:

“You get that little slogan when something goes bad, it happens in life or anytime something goes bad of ‘oh, here we go again’ and we’re not doing that ‘here we go again.’ We’re starting new, we’re starting fresh and we’re starting to get better.”