Saturday, May 13, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Michael Mayer visited Las Vegas for the first time a year ago, as the then Notre Dame All-American tight end flew in to record a promotional video for his college team’s upcoming neutral-site game against BYU.
The end of “The Hangover”-inspired advertisement featured Mayer, alongside Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman and edge rusher Isaiah Foskey, walking out onto the field at Allegiant Stadium and vowing to come back. Little did the 21-year-old know at the time that such a return would eventually happen on a permanent basis.
Mayer wound up the Raiders’ second-round pick, and 35th overall selection, in last month’s NFL Draft.
“I think the first thing that I realized was how immaculate that stadium is,” Mayer said of his pair to visits to Las Vegas last year. “Being able to play home games there is going to be a very, very fun thing to do. The city, the fans, the vibes surrounding the city, it was fantastic. I got a little bit of a taste of it … and I’m happy to make it my new home.”
The Raiders’ full rookie class — consisting of nine draft picks and 11 undrafted free agents — is in town together for the first time this weekend as part of a three-day rookie minicamp. None of them is expected to make as large of an immediate impact next season as Mayer.
The success of Texas Tech edge rusher Tyree Wilson, the No. 7 overall pick, will hold the most significance to the Raiders long-term but he’s likely to be eased in next season to a degree. Las Vegas already has superstar Maxx Crosby and veteran Chandler Jones at Wilson’s position with both owed more than $17 million next year.
General manager Dave Zielger said Wilson could rotate in and learn under the duo, or even play some on the interior of the defensive line, after the draft.
There are no proven incumbents at Mayer’s position on the other hand. Barring a major surprise or something else unforeseen, Mayer will step in as the primary option at tight end as a rookie to fill the void created by the offseason trade of Pro Bowler Darren Waller.
“When I talk about rookies, all of them are going to have to come in and earn their role,” Ziegler said. “There’s a lot of transitions that go on in doing that, but he has a skill set to come in and make an impact for us in Year 1.”
Just as inadvertently foretelling as Mayer’s initial trip to Allegiant Stadium was the future Hall of Fame player Fighting Irish fans and teammates nicknamed him after during a breakout freshman season — former Patriots and Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski. Raiders coach Josh McDaniels served as Gronkowski’s offensive coordinator for seven seasons in New England, in part building a passing attack around the tight end’s strengths.
Mayer became known as “Baby Gronk” because of his similarities to the four-time Super Bowl champion. They’re both roughly the same size — Mayer is 6-foot-4, 265 pounds to Gronkowski’s 6-foot-6, 264 pounds — with scouting reports that highlight their physical presence, soft hands and open-field ability despite minor concerns about their ability to use speed and create separation.
McDaniels assisted in assuring Gronkowski became one of the greatest of all-time at his position, and now the Raiders coach will similarly need to guide Mayer to hitting the top end of his potential.
“Coach McDaniels knows how to use tight ends, and he loves tight ends,” Mayer said. “And so, I think I’m going to fit very well into the offense.”
McDaniels was ahead of the recent NFL trend of using 12 personnel — the offensive grouping with one running back and two tight ends — and many expected it to be a recipe for success in his first season in Las Vegas last year. But it didn’t work out that way with both of last year’s now-departed top tight ends, Waller and Foster Moreau, battling injuries throughout the year.
The Raiders only used 12 personnel on 18% of snaps according to sharpfootballstats.com — below the league average of 21% — including a league-low 7% of the time on first down. They often resorted to checking in an extra offensive lineman, leading to constant official announcements like “No. 77 has reported as eligible,” but that should be minimized this year.
Receiving might have been how he built his name, but Mayer made major strides as a blocker throughout his three-year college career too. Las Vegas also signed a pair of veteran tight ends, Austin Hooper (who played for the Tennessee Titans last year) and O.J. Howard (Houston Texans), who have been above-average blockers throughout their careers.
“I’m going to come in and just try to absorb as much information as I can,” Mayer said. “Those guys, they’ve played a lot of football, so I’m going to come in and learn a lot from them. We’re going to complement each other and we’re going to have fun doing it.”
Ziegler said Mayer was one of the Raiders’ top 15 graded players in the draft, so they were ecstatic to be able to trade up and take him early in the second round. Las Vegas considered giving up more capital and getting back into the first round to select Mayer, but it turned out to be unnecessary.
He was trending toward becoming a top-flight pro prospect in his final season at Notre Dame anyway, but Mayer’s Allegiant Stadium debut last October helped cement his status. He caught a career-high 11 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the Irish’s 28-20 victory over BYU.
A 24-yard touchdown catch in the first half made him Notre Dame’s all-time leader in receptions among tight ends. He set a high standard with his collegiate career and first performance at Allegiant, along with the inherent pressure of being so commonly linked to Gronkowski.
But Mayer may have landed at the perfect place to live up to all of it.
“Wherever Coach McDaniels puts me, I’m going to be ready for it,” Mayer said. “I’m going to do what he asks me to do, whether it be on first, second or third down. … I’m excited to be in this kind of scheme.”