When the NFL free agency period opened, it was believed the Raiders would bring in a veteran tight end with proven pass-catching ability.
Some reports linked the Raiders with Julius Thomas, the athletic playmaker of the Broncos. Jordan Cameron of the Browns and Jermaine Gresham of the Bengals also were thought to be on general manager Reggie McKenzie’s radar.
The Raiders, after all, had been very weak at the position in 2014 behind starter Mychal Rivera, who in his second pro season showed he can be a fine receiver.
Rivera, who had 38 catches as a rookie in 2013, topped that with 58 this past season for 534 yards and four touchdowns. But the Raiders need another option at the position to give quarterback Derek Carr another reliable target and also to help blocking in the running game, not a Rivera strength.
So far, the Raiders haven’t brought in the proven receiver at tight end. Thomas and Cameron went elsewhere, and Gresham disclosed he has an injury, so the market on his services has cooled.
But the Raiders have brought in an under-the-radar veteran at the position who could prove to be quite valuable, even if it’s unlikely he’ll have more than a dozen catches in 2015.
Lee Smith, a 27-year-old fifth-round pick of the New England Patriots from Tennessee in 2011, has signed with Oakland and comes with a reputation as a fine blocker.
In four seasons with Buffalo, Smith – who’s 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds – has played 56 games and has had just 20 catches. He caught a career-best seven in 2014 for 42 yards and a TD. Overall, he’s averaged just 7.2 yards per reception and has three TD catches as a pro.
But Smith, who signed a deal with Oakland reported to be for three years and $9 million, is a difference-making blocker who will give new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave more options with multiple tight end sets.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith graded out in the top five among all NFL tight ends as a blocker on both running and passing plays in 2014. And, Smith takes pride in his role blocking for others to help the offense go.
“Over the years, people have kind of referred to me as a lunch pail guy, and I take a lot of pride in that,” he told reporters.