In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or jumping from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Why Clive Walford is on the list
Walford's rookie outing was a tale of two seasons.
Oakland's newbie tight end operated as a roving phantom over his first eight games, seeing just 12 targets and only teasing fans with the raw athleticism that made him a third-round pick in 2015. His second half was a revelation, though, with 39 targets -- giving him a total of 51 on the season -- coming after Week 9.
While the slow start prevented a monster stat line, Walford eclipsed veteran Mychal Rivera in the lineup by mid-November and gave young quarterback Derek Carr an exciting new option through the air. On tape, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder displays a consistent ability to break off coverage and provide Carr an open window to shoot for. This catch-and-weave against Denver's Super Bowl-winning secondary in Week 5 was a hint of what would come:
Big plays were few and far between out of the gate, but Walford finished the year with five grabs of 20-plus yards, while often using his big frame to plow for extra real estate. Teams angling to neutralize Walford with linebackers and slow-to-the-draw safeties often paid the price, as San Diego learned in Week 7:
Walford's 4.79 speed and 35-inch vertical leap came in handy as he turned into a middle-of-the-field threat for Carr, who came to trust the rookie's hands. After muffing just two of 58 targets during his senior year at Miami, Walford finished his first NFL season without a registered drop. Not afraid to tangle with defenders, the rookie popped off the screen in a December outing against Kansas City, slicing up the Chiefs for gains of 16, 15 and 13 yards. Take a look:
Carr targeted Walford 26 times over Oakland's final five games of the year. The upshot? By March, the Raiders had Rivera on the trade block amid reports the club was "very high" on Walford and looking to "expand his role going forward."
Obstacles he'll face
By all accounts, Walford has a chance to write his own story in Year 2. His 28 catches for 329 yards and three scores mirror the rookie production of some of the game's finest tight ends. Rob Gronkowski put up just 546 yards as a rookie (though he did notch 10 TDs), while Tony Gonzalez (368) and Jimmy Graham (356) were underwhelming out of the gate.
Walford's immediate hurdle is getting healthy after reportedly suffering a "big gash" on one of his knees from an offseason ATV accident. The injury kept him sidelined during OTAs, robbing the tight end of critical work with Carr, but Walford has been green-lit for training camp.
Barring the unexpected, Walford has a clear path to the starting job. While Rivera looms as a likely partner on two-tight-end sets, Lee Smith, Gabe Holmes, Colton Underwood and Ryan O'Malley aren't about to overshadow Walford. In terms of racking up big numbers, his biggest obstacle is wideout Amari Cooper, set to serve as Oakland's premier weapon for years to come. Veteran wideout Michael Crabtree shouldn't be ignored, either, as a presence who could pull from Walford's production.
Expectations for 2016
Walford hit Oakland at the ideal time.
With a promising young quarterback in place, the Raiders offense appears ready to make the leap -- pulling Walford along for the ride. Assuming he holds down the starting spot (if not, please set this article on fire), Walford's second half to last season provides a road map for what to expect in 2016. It's safe to suggest that he'll double his catch total and yardage, but can he jump into the stratosphere like some of the game's top tight ends have done in Year 2 of their careers?
Gronkowski, for instance, blew up for 90 catches, 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Walford isn't about to duplicate that kind of chaos, but he's a candidate to mirror the 67/862/5 line that Travis Kelce recorded as a second-year weapon for the Chiefs in 2014.