ALAMEDA — One play comes to Mason Rudolph’s mind right away, one he thinks captures why Marcell Ateman can thrive in the NFL.
No. 15 Oklahoma State trailed No. 21 Iowa State, 42-34, with six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a pivotal Big 12 matchup last year. Rudolph, Oklahoma State’s quarterback, faced a 3rd-and-22 from Iowa State’s 30-yard line. He took the snap and looked right, but nothing was open. After going four seconds untouched, Rudolph heaved the ball to the back left corner of the end zone, where Ateman stood with two red jerseys nearby.
He climbed the back of one defender, corralled the ball and held on as the other tried to rip it out as he fell to the ground.
“He just Moss’d two guys in the end zone, kind of a jump ball,” Rudolph, now a Steelers rookie, said this week. “I threw it up to him. It was early in the fourth quarter … unbelievable catch, kind of got the feet in, all the concentration, the combat catch. It was beautiful.”
(The play begins at 2:21 in the video below)
The 6-foot-4, 216-pound receiver flew under the radar in college playing behind Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington, but Ateman can make a name for himself on the big stage with the Raiders’ receiving corps depleted and craving any help it can get.
The Raiders picked Ateman in the seventh round this year, and he’s yet to play a regular season snap. After waiting his turn on the practice squad for the first seven weeks, Ateman joined the active roster before Week 8 after the Raiders (1-8) traded Amari Cooper. Ateman has been inactive each game since, but injuries to Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant this week offer Ateman his first real chance in a game that counts against the Cardinals (2-7) on Sunday in Arizona.
“You hate for guys to get injured and that’s how you have to come up, but it’s an opportunity and I’m just gonna make the most of it,” Ateman said. “It’s just antsy, sitting on the sideline watching the guys play, just because as a competitor, as a player, I want to be out there doing the same. You know what I mean? Finally getting my chance.”
Ateman has peppered Derek Carr and other veterans with questions this season – during games, after games, during the week – so he could grasp the offense before his time came. He wanted to show veterans he’s interested in more than just standing and watching even when he’s not involved. He’s picked Carr’s brain about what the quarterback saw on certain plays, what certain receivers could’ve done better on routes and coverages facing receivers whose position he might be in this weekend.
Carr doesn’t mind Ateman asking questions, even during games, because it shows he wants to be here and could be a piece for the future.
“I can tell that he’s not just here taking a redshirt year, enjoying his time wearing the team colors,” Carr said. “He’s really put in a lot of work and it means something to him. He’s shown that, so hopefully he just goes out there and cuts it loose because he’s done all the right things. Now he’s just got to go play.”
Ateman has admitted he’s not the fastest receiver out there, but he makes up for it with an innate ability to rise and reach any ball. He stood out during training camp by making several highlight-reel catches in contested matchups, not with third-stringers, but with the starting quarterback throwing him the ball. Then the Raiders waived him on Sept. 1, signed him back to the practice squad the next day and he hasn’t played a meaningful snap since.
Ateman insists he’s a better receiver than the one opening eyes over the summer, mainly because he vowed to stay engaged while on the practice squad, patiently waiting his turn while opposing the Raiders’ starting defense in practice.
“Steady progress. He is a big guy. Has played well. He’s played multiple positions,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “As I have said last week, he is also a guy we think has the size and strength to contribute on special teams … He’ll be another rookie that we call on. We’ve had some rookies step up. We’ll need him to do the same.”
Ateman knows all about patience from sitting out the entire 2016 season at Oklahoma State because of a fractured fifth metatarsal suffered during a Saturday morning offseason throwing session with Rudolph. Ateman returned to catch 59 passes for 1,156 yards and eight touchdowns his redshirt senior season. In a way, Ateman picking the brains of this year’s veterans to stay prepared mirrors how he handled a year off as a would-be senior in college. Now he’s tasked with breaking out again after biding his time on the sideline.
“He almost became kind of a quarterback playing receiver, being able to read coverage and just really being a film rat with the coaches, with our receivers coach, with our whole offensive staff,” Rudolph said. “A guy that really knew the offense and was able to really be a leader and kind of get the younger guys in the right spots that redshirt senior year.”
Now Ateman is that young guy, but what exactly can he bring to the Raiders? A top three of Brandon LaFell, Seth Roberts and Ateman certainly doesn’t frighten opponents, but Rudolph insists his favorite big target from college can play with the big boys. Michael Crabtree was that red-zone threat for the Raiders last year, but they haven’t found one in 2018. Ateman owns the arsenal to be that, and time will tell if he fits the bill.
“I think the thing that jumps out to me about him most is just his ball skills and his 50-50 ball, jump-ball, red-zone ability,” Rudolph said. “Just a big, physical guy, really athletic, great, great catch radius for a long time.”
The final seven games this season are more an evaluation period for the future than anything for the NFL’s worst team. Which youngsters they keep as building blocks and which they cast aside will be determined with little else to play for in the present other than pride and paychecks.
That’s perfect for Ateman, who Sunday will get his first real chance to prove he deserves to stay.
“I’m just excited, just to have this opportunity. It’s such a blessing,” Ateman said. “You never know when, you never know why, but going to take full advantage of it.”