ALAMEDA — Lee Smith was settling in to watch tape of the Raiders win over the New York Giants when a play caught his eye.
It was a deep middle pass from Derek Carr to Clive Walford, who broke into the clear, effortlessly snagged a bullet pass and gained 26 yards and a first down.
Rather than wait for the next time he would see Walford during a meeting of the Raiders’ tight ends, he got out his phone immediately.
“I texted him immediately and I said, `That’s Miami Clive right there,’ ” Smith said Tuesday following a Raiders walkthrough practice. “He’s back. I told him you’re going to make a lot of money in this league if you keep playing like that.”
To say Walford is back is technically untrue because he never went anywhere. A third-round draft pick out of Miami in 2015, Walford was a prize prospect who had 28 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie and 33 receptions for 359 yards and three scores in Year 2.
But an off-season ATV accident was at least partially responsible for Walford not making a quantum leap in his second year. He played through it — averaging 47 snaps with a high of 72 in 16 games.
But while Walford was getting himself in top condition for his third season, the Raiders signed Jared Cook in free agency and he immediately became the top receiving threat at tight end.
“I’m a competitor. I watched film on him,” Walford said. “I know he was a great player. I just thought I could benefit from him. That was the positive I took from it. I didn’t want to get down about it.”
After having never played fewer than 29 snaps in a game in 2016, Walford topped out at 14 and played as few as five through 11 games heading in to the Giants game.
With Michael Crabtree suspended and Amari Cooper injured, offensive coordinator Todd Downing made Walford, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, a bigger part of the game plan. Smith, whose strength is as an in-line blocker, did the dirty work as usual. Walford was needed for an additional receiving target and he responded.
“With our star receivers down I know someone had to step up and make a play and that’s what I did,” Walford said.
He played a season-high 25 snaps and finished with four receptions in four targets for 57 yards. With the Giants keeping close tabs on Cook, who leads the Raiders with 43 receptions, Walford was able to win one-on-one match-ups.
While Walford made his time on the bench sound routine, Smith said it’s difficult for any player to suddenly accept a secondary role.
“I don’t care who you are, when they bring in a premiere player who has been around a long time at your position, that can be hard to handle,” Smith said. “You want to catch balls. You want to make plays. None of us work our tials off to go cheerlead during a game. We want to play.
“Clive has earned my respect and I’m so proud of the way he’s handled it.”
Left tackle Donald Penn said he wasn’t surprised to see Walford come through.
“I told Clive today, `I’m not saying congratulations. You’ve been doing that. ‘That’s what we expect,” Penn said. “When his number is called, what do you go out there and do? Go out there and make great plays and great catches. That’s how your number gets called more.”
Walford said he and Carr had begun to click late last season before the Raiders quarterback broke his ankle and that the Giants game represented “picking up where we left off.”
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said Walford “came up big” and acknowledged the difficulty of a reduced role. Crabtree returns from suspension this week and Cooper’s status remains questionable after being out with a concussion and an ankle injury.
Walford will stand at the ready.
“We’ll see. That’s why we’ve got practice,” Walford said. “It don’t change for me. I’m still going to prepare and get ready to go and play a great game.”