Raiders wide receiver Rico Gafford admits being taken aback by the request.
“I’m like, ‘I’m in the National Football League, changing my position right now is something that is kind of weird to me,’” Gafford remembers thinking.
As a rookie on the practice squad hoping to stay in the league, he kept those thoughts to himself. Gafford, a cornerback, switched sides of the field and worked as a wide receiver when the Raiders needed help at the position because of an injury.
Two years later, he has made his first opening-day NFL roster. He credits his ability to focus solely on playing offense during the offseason.
“The last two years I was in and out of roles, whether it was offense or defense,” Gafford said. “So going into this offseason, I knew that I was going to be playing wide receiver 100 percent, and that in order for me to become a guy that is playing on Sundays, I would have to completely dedicate myself to working on my craft and getting better as a receiver.”
Gafford appeared in one regular-season game that first season, playing mostly special teams. He had been released by the Tennessee Titans after signing as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Wyoming. Gafford was added to the Raiders’ practice squad two days later and made his first NFL appearance in a Christmas Eve win over Denver.
When Gafford returned for his second season in 2019, there was still some uncertainty about where he would fit in. He worked mostly at wide receiver and started again on the practice squad before making four appearances as an active player. He made one start and caught two passes for 66 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown.
“When I got an opportunity, I just took advantage of it,” Gafford said. “So, it was kind of a decision they made, but it was something that I was like, ‘Look, (it’s) Jon Gruden.’ That’s a legendary guy, so whatever he wants me to do, I’m going to do it.”
While the 24-year-old Iowa native is starting to establish himself, he’s still willing to do whatever it takes to keep his place.
“(Two years ago) I was just a gadget guy and did whatever the coaches told me to do,” he said. “Gave them a look and gave it the best that I could. So, going from my rookie year to now, I definitely want to be a guy that can step on the field at all times and play 24/7 and be up every Sunday, and that comes down to whatever the coaches want to do.”
That attitude might be keeping him in the league, but it’s speed that got him there. Gafford’s 40-yard dash time is listed at 4.27 seconds, though one scout at his college pro day clocked him unofficially at 4.19.
“He has one of those things we just can’t coach called speed,” general manager Mike Mayock said.
Gafford now hopes to reward the Raiders for showing faith in him.
“I’m very happy and thankful for the coaches believing in me and giving me the opportunity to make the 53-man roster,” he said.