Through the first seven games of his rookie season, Raiders rookie tight end Mychal Rivera had just 12 catches.
The former University of Tennessee star – who had 36 catches for 562 yards as a senior for the Volunteers and was an all-Southeastern Conference selection – wasn’t making a huge impact in the Raiders’ offense. In the team’s seventh game, against the Steelers, Rivera in fact was held without a catch.
But in Game No. 8 vs. the Eagles, Rivera caught four of five balls thrown his way. It was a turning point. Over the second half of this 2013 season, Rivera has shown the Raiders that they may have a future standout at the position.
Over his past eight games, Rivera has averaged three catches per game – not a bad stat considering the Raiders’ quarterback situation.
As Oakland heads into its season finale this Sunday vs. the Broncos at O.co Coliseum, Rivera ranks as the team’s No. 3 receiver, behind wideouts Rod Streater (55 catches for 848 yards) and Denarius Moore (42 catches, 632). Rivera has 36 catches for 384 yards and four TDs, No. 2 on the roster behind only Moore’s five scoring catches.
“I think Mychal Rivera’s done a nice job,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen said earlier this season, after Rivera had his best performance with five catches for 54 yards and a TD in a 28-23 victory over the Texans. “He understands the passing game. Obviously he’s a rookie so he still makes mistakes but every week I’ve seen him continue to get better, so I’m pleased with where he’s at.”
Rivera is coming off a game last week against the Chargers in which he caught two balls for 43 yards, including a 37-yarder. And over the past three games he has 10 catches and two touchdowns.
“He’s still improving every week and we haven’t seen that physical drop off you expect from a young player,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said in Week 12.
At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Rivera is on the small side of the tight end spectrum, and is known more as a receiver than a blocker. Blocking has been something he’s had to work hard to improve. But his progress in that area will earn him more snaps, and more snaps will allow him to make a difference in the passing game.
“We’ll continue to work on his blocking, and it’s a matter of time to see how (he) matures in terms of getting bigger and stronger,” Allen told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement in his in-line blocking.”
Rivera, for his part, says he’d love to model his career after the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, a pair of tight ends likely bound for the Hall of Fame.
“They’re real pros who do things the right way,” Rivera told McDonald. “They run routes crisply, take pride in their blocking and make a big difference in games.”
Now, Rivera has one more game in his rookie season to take another step forward. Though the Raiders aren’t fighting for a playoff spot at 4-11, Rivera said this week on 95.7 The Game that “It means everything to finish strong.”
“It gives the organization something special to head into the offseason with momentum,” he said.