HENDERSON, Nev. — The last time the Raiders drafted a Notre Dame tight end in the second round who wore No. 87, it turned out pretty well. Hall of Famer Dave Casper played seven seasons for the Raiders, had numerous memorable playoff performances and was instrumental in their Super Bowl XI victory over the Vikings. This spring, Casper traveled to Las Vegas for a Raiders alumni dinner and sat next to another second-round South Bend tight end who also wore No. 87: Michael Mayer.
“We had a conversation for hours about football, about life, about everything,” Mayer said Tuesday.
Obviously, Mayer has a long way to go to be the type of player Casper was. The setbacks and hurdles he’ll face along his journey, though, won’t deter him. They motivate him even more.
There weren’t many disappointments in Mayer’s three-year career at Notre Dame, but he was met with one during the Raiders’ first day in pads this summer. During a red zone drill, edge rusher Maxx Crosby drove Mayer into the field, took his time stepping over his body and proceeded to give him hell for the remainder of practice.
“I got embarrassed,” Mayer said. “That was definitely my welcome-to-the-NFL moment. From there, I’ve just been trying to get better and learn from it. … I know it’s going to help me this season and in the long run.”
Maxx Crosby gets physical in Raiders’ spirited first practice of camp in pads
The biggest adjustment for the 22-year-old in moving from college to the NFL has been becoming a better blocker. The receiving side of tight end play has always come naturally for Mayer, but after being drafted in April, he has had to “dig deep” to improve both as a run blocker and in pass protection.
Going into his final year in college, Mayer spent extra time with Notre Dame tight ends coach Gerad Parker refining his technique, footwork and hand placement. It paid dividends as Mayer showed growth as a blocker last year. But adjusting to the size, speed and athleticism of NFL defenders has required him to double down on his efforts.
“It’s definitely different,” Mayer said. “That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed coming from college to the NFL — the blocking technique that you’ve got to have. I’m learning every day and I’m improving at it every day and there’s a lot for me to get better at in terms of that. That’s one of my main focuses right now, for sure.”
Raiders coach Josh McDaniels requires his tight ends to be comfortable whether they’re lined up in-line or split out wide. That’s not new to Mayer — at Notre Dame, he lined up in-line 61.9 percent of the time and detached 38.1 percent of the time according to The Athletic draft analyst Dane Brugler — but he has to be more consistent as a blocker to hang in the trenches at the next level. In an effort to bring that to fruition, Raiders tight ends coach Jerry Schuplinski has harped on his pad level and hand usage regularly during training camp.
“It’s just hammering in on the fundamentals and using your fundamentals and your techniques,” Schuplinski said earlier this month. “Sometimes maybe in college you’re able to overpower a few guys and get away with a few things. And it shows here: If they make a fundamental mishap or something, you’re usually going to pay for it. … We’re just trying to keep getting better at it every day.”
Where the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has hit the ground running, however, is as a receiver. His blend of size, strength, athleticism and route-running ability has allowed him to find success whether he’s matched up against linebackers, cornerbacks or safeties. He played basketball through his junior year of high school, and it shows in how he makes contested catches, times his jumps well, moves his feet quickly and uses his body to box out defenders. His physical traits and his nuanced skill set make him a headache to cover.
“I think I use my big body very well,” Mayer said. “I can get into guys. I can burst off of guys. I can understand their movements. I can understand, ‘Is he going to have outside leverage here or inside leverage? What do I need to do? Where do I need to stem?’ I could do that very well in college because of how much I knew the offense. … I’m trying to get that down here as much as I can.”
🔴🎥Live: Michael Mayer and Luke Masterson address the media from the Intermountain Health Performance Center. https://t.co/MorEuW0UV1
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) August 22, 2023
With his size, his knack for finding open space and his ability to make difficult catches, Mayer could make a big impact in the red zone. The Raiders were just 26th in red zone scoring efficiency last year, according to TruMedia, so they could use the help. His speed is just above average, and he’s not known as a deep threat, but it’s also easy to see him having success in the short to intermediate areas of the field.
Mayer has missed chunks of time during both OTAs and training camp due to undisclosed injuries, but, when healthy, he has frequently rotated with Austin Hooper as the starting tight end. It’s not the be-all end-all, but Mayer started in his preseason debut last week against the Rams. They’re competing, but Hooper has been an open book for Mayer to learn from.
“It’s fun to have a young guy who’s hungry like him in the room who doesn’t have an ego, who’s humble and is willing to learn,” Hooper said recently. “If I say, ‘Hey, I would do this differently,’ he’s like, ‘Got you,’ and you see him go out there and do it. It helps him out a ton.”
Mayer is still in the process of getting a handle on McDaniels’ offense. The same goes for Hooper, but he’s a veteran whose experience has helped him learn it more quickly. For Mayer to earn the starting job on a full-time basis, he must close that gap.
“It’s not easy. I’ll just say that straight up,” Mayer said. “In college, my offense was very, very simple. There were one-, two-word things. Here, there’s a lot more that goes into it. There’s checks. There’s alerts. There’s things like that. Reloads. It’s just about repetition for me. If I fail at it, all right, cool, I’ma go back and do it again until I get it. That’s my mindset.”
Whether or not Mayer is an immediate starter, the Raiders expect him to be a significant contributor in the passing game in Year 1. With a deep stable of pass catchers including Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, Jakobi Meyers and Hooper, among others, there are only so many targets to go around. But the coaching staff is high on Mayer’s chances of making an impact.
“He’s a mature kid,” Schuplinski said. “He’s tough. He’s smart. He works really hard. And it’s really important to him. So, anytime you get a guy with those kinds of credentials, you’re really excited about it. He’s been really fun to work with. He’s not shy about putting in the effort. He always wants more information. He studies hard at what he’s got, and he’s trying to make the best of it.”
• The Raiders had 10 players who didn’t practice Tuesday: running back Brittain Brown, guard Dylan Parham, receiver Chris Lacy, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Isaac Rochell, defensive tackles Bilal Nichols and Byron Young, linebacker Darien Butler and cornerbacks Jakorian Bennett and Nate Hobbs. McDaniels didn’t speak Tuesday, so there was no further information given about the absences.
• Receiver Hunter Renfrow and cornerback Brandon Facyson practiced in red non-contact jerseys. According to a league source, Renfrow is nursing a minor shoulder injury. For Facyson, it was his first time practicing since he suffered an apparent leg injury several weeks ago.
• With Parham out, Netane Muti has continued to get most of the starting reps at left guard. Meanwhile, Greg Van Roten appears to have a stranglehold on the starting right guard job. Alex Bars worked as Muti’s backup, while Jordan Meredith rotated in behind Van Roten.
• Jermaine Eluemunor led off practice as the starting right tackle, but Thayer Munford rotated in for a fair number of reps with the starters. Eluemunor has a slight edge in a competition battle there that remains tight.
(Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
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