Raiders hope rookie TE Michael Mayer is ready to break through

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Friday, November 17, 2023

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Michael Mayer blacked out.

The Las Vegas Raiders rookie tight end could not recall exactly how he celebrated his first career touchdown catch, a "Mossing" of New York Jets safety Jordan Whitehead in the end zone Sunday night.

Mayer's teammates, meanwhile, not only had a collective photographic memory of the celebration -- he simply flipped the football with his left hand and walked in a circle as he stared into the Allegiant Stadium crowd -- but they also talked of a certain need for more such plays from the 6-foot-4, 265-pound pass-catcher going forward.

"Big Mike," marveled defensive end Maxx Crosby, "went up and made a big play."

"That's impressive, man," added All-Pro receiver Davante Adams. "He's made a lot of catches like this since he's been here, so we need that from our tight end room, especially the way we get played down there, tight in the red zone. So hopefully, we get many more of those out of him."

With 16 catches, on 24 targets, for 178 yards and the TD this season, Mayer ranks fourth among rookie tight ends in each of those categories. Many expected more given former coach Josh McDaniels' success with tight ends as the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, especially in the wake of former Pro Bowler Darren Waller being traded to the New York Giants this past offseason.

Mayer, though, does lead all Raiders tight ends in catches and receiving yards, as veteran Austin Hooper has 14 catches for 135 yards and Jesper Horsted has one catch for four yards. Neither has a touchdown catch.

Mayer and the Raiders, obviously, hope the TD is a springboard as the Raiders' schedule toughens.

"It's special," Mayer said. "It's my first one in the league. ... Hopefully, many, many more to come and it's a really special thing to be able to do that for my teammates, do that for my coaches, do that for ... this organization's been through a lot the past couple of weeks this season, last season, and feels good to come out with a 'W.'"

Mayer didn't even realize it was the lone touchdown scored in a 16-12 win which gave the Raiders their second straight win under interim coach Antonio Pierce, evening their record at 5-5 heading into Sunday's game at the 6-3 Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, CBS), who are leading the AFC East.

In fact, Mayer was not even sure what had happened to the ball, a keepsake if ever there was one the third tight end selected in April's draft after the Raiders traded up to select him at No. 35 overall. Even as a football rested in his locker, above his head.

It all speaks to what is most important to the Notre Dame product -- producing and winning. Not individual accolades or celebrations.

"That dude is good, bro," said Raiders All-Pro running back Josh Jacobs. "I think people sleep on how good he's going to be. I really watch him. I tell him all the time, 'Man, I appreciate you.'

"I don't think it's going unnoticed at practice every week, just because the way he works, how professional he is as a rookie, the way he wants to be in the game and he wants that moment and we always say 'top-shelf pullback.' And so when he caught it, you see everybody turnt up, he did the 'top-shelf pullback.'"

The "top-shelf pullback?" That was Mayer's "Mossing" of Whitehead.

It was third=and-4 at the Jets' 7-yard line early in the fourth quarter of a 9-9 game. The Raiders are in 11 personnel with Adams and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow lined up wide left, receiver Jakobi Meyers wide right, rookie quarterback Aidan O'Connell five yards behind center Andre James and Mayer with his hand in the grass, lined up next to right tackle Thayer Munford Jr.

After faking an inside handoff to Jacobs, O'Connell stared to his left before stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush of Jets linebacker Bryce Huff. Rolling to his right, O'Connell spied linebacker Jermaine Johnson closing in on him from behind.

Mayer took over from here.

"It was almost a little bit of a broken play to where I went under Jakobi; I was supposed to go over Jakobi, a little bit of a mix up there," Mayer laughed.

"I have a pylon route. So, I stick it at the goal line and go straight to the back pylon and the guy kind of played to my outside shoulder and I tried to get around him and I just kind of cut it a little bit short. The defender was staying on my low hip there and I saw Aidan. He kind of rolled out a little bit and it was a beautiful throw, beautiful throw."

So Mayer went up and over the 5-10 Whitehead.

See, Mayer recalled every aspect of the play. The celebration, though, was another issue.

"The heck just happened?" he said after the game.

Added O'Connell: "We have a field goal secured, most likely, and so I just tried to give [Mayer] a ball that only he could get, and he did an awesome job. We've seen plays like that for months now, and so it's awesome that the world got to see what he can do. But he's a super dynamic player and we're hoping for more plays like that."

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the play was the Raiders' first TD pass on an extended dropback this season, as O'Connell took 4.54 seconds to make the throw. Mayer had just 0.9 yards of separation at the time of his catch, which had a 27.4% completion probability, the most improbable catch among tight ends in Week 10.

"Confidence for me is going out there trying to play my best, trying to play my hardest, trying to help the team win," Mayer said. "It's not something that's just very up and down, up and down, up and down. I know what I can do. They know what I can do. That's why they drafted me."

Yeah, Mayer remembered that tidbit of information.

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