GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Raiders invited Jalen Richard to tryout for the team last offseason, and bought him a round-trip ticket. One segment brought him to Oakland before rookie minicamp. The other was set to take the running back home to New Orleans after the three-day practice session.
That’s common for teams looking to sign players off the street, but Richard didn’t care. The Southern Mississippi product found new motivation. No way, no how were the Raiders sending him back home.
Sure enough, that flight to Crescent City had an open seat.
Richard earned an offseason roster spot, then a place on the 53-man and finally, consistent carries on a playoff team.
This unknown talent’s now a proven commodity. There’s security in that status, but he’s never truly comfortable. Richard likes it that way. That round-trip ticket has been saved in his phone as a reminder of last year’s crazy ride.
Not like he’s allowed to forget it. Richard relives it regularly, both in talking to the press and undrafted teammates hoping to follow a similar path. Richard has become a mentor to those guys, who ask what it takes to stand out in a dense crowd.
“I grabbed that position since the first day I got here,” Richard said. “Guys have come up and talked to me on their own asking me about my situation coming in undrafted. They’re trying to figure out if there’s a spot and not getting many reps in practice can be aggravating, and I sit there and talk to them and tell them I went through the same things last year. Every opportunity you do get, try to be seen and make them keep looking.
“I learned quickly that, as long as you can make plays, you’ll have a job. They’re looking for playmakers who fly around. If you do that, you force their hand. I took on that (advisory) role as soon as I got here.”
The Raiders are adept finding diamonds in the rough. They had eight undrafted players contribute to last year’s squad, with other finds in previous years. Part of that comes from scouting. Another comes from Jack Del Rio’s disregard for draft status or paycheck size when creating a depth chart.
“How you get here doesn’t matter,” Del Rio said. “To me, that’s where it starts. That’s how we feel. You have to give (general manger Reggie McKenzie and the scouting a lot of credit for bringing those guys in and knowing that they would have a legitimate shot to make our team and to compete. It’s a kind of unified effort, we’re going to attack it that way. That’s what we do and once they get here, show us what you got.”
Showing well in practice is one thing. Producing in Saturday’s preseason opener at Arizona is another.
“That first game is the biggest opportunity now that they’ve had so far,” Del Rio said. “Practice up to this point tells you a certain amount. Now how they respond in game conditions is huge and definitely a big part of it. We’ll see. Typically, a guy or two will stand out in a game like this and we’ll know more about him.”
Some guys have stood out on this year’s squad, hoping to someday tell their version of Richard’s story.
Count cornerback Breon Borders among them. The Duke product climbed the ladder this offseason and is currently the first-unit nickel back. He’s trying to prove he belongs at this level and is worthy of a 53-man roster spot in a competitive position group.
“That’s 100 percent my focus,” Borders said. “I want to make the team, and make the team better. And as an undrafted guy, you have to make sure you get to know the special teams coach. You go 100 percent on every rep. That’s how you get noticed.”
That drive is strong, and can overwhelm. It’s important, Richard says, to keep a cool head.
“You can get out there and overdo it,” Richard said. “The key is having confidence in your ability to play at this level. The biggest obstacle is believing in yourself and that you can compete with guys you’ve watched on TV. You can get caught staring at the lights, but you can only do that so long. You have to remember that it’s just football, something we’ve been doing since we were five years old. You just have to go play.”