Mike Mitchell inched closer to his first start as Raiders strong safety Friday when Tyvon Branch missed practice with a neck injury.
Also not practicing as warm-ups and drills gave way to team sessions were running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson (high ankle sprains), defensive tackle Richard Seymour (hamstring) and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring).
Coach Dennis Allen said regarding Branch on Thursday he’d have “some real concern’’ if he weren’t able to practice the following day.
Mitchell, in his fourth season out of Ohio, has been on the field seven times at the start of games when the Raiders opened in a nickel defense, but never as a starting strong safety in the base defense.
“Obviously, it’s a goal of mine to be a starter in this league and to play,’’ Mitchell said. “I welcome the opportunity. It’s unfortunate, what’s going on with Tyvon. You never want one of your brothers to get hurt, but I’m willing to play.’’
It’s a big challenge in that the New Orleans offense features tight Jimmy Graham, a 6-foot-7 former basketball player out of Miami who has 45 receptions for 533 yards and seven touchdowns and presents a nightmare matchup because he’s too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers.
“I haven’t seen anyone get very physical with him yet, as far as DBs,’’ Mitchell said. “Most guys are too small, and they shy away from him. She just bodies them. I’m curious to see how he’s going to handle more of a physical, skill-position guy checking him at the line.’’
Taken in the second round of the 2009 draft, Mitchell remains eager to validate the decision by Al Davis to select him, a choice that astonished some draft analysts who considered him a late-round pick or potential undrafted free agent.
Mitchell has battled injuries at times, played in different defensive packages and on special teams, and looks forward to his first crack at being a full-time player. The presence of Branch, drafted the previous year and a starter for the last 57 games, has kept Mitchell in a supporting role.
“I’m just so ready to be done with this, to show what I can do,’’ Mitchell said. “I’m tired — I feel like I’ve been held back, held back, held back. So if I get the opportunity I just want to go play good football and show the abilities God has blessed me with.’’
Mitchell plays with emotion and reckless abandon. He’s known as a “friendly fire’’ threat among teammates, and Allen is hoping to see Mitchell dial it back just a bit when necessary.
“He’s a very passionate player, he works extremely hard, he loves the game,’’ Allen said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to slow his heartbeat down a little bit and get him to calm down. It’s important to him, and that’s what I like about him.’’
— If Heyward-Bey can’t play, it means more snaps for Rod Streater, Derek Hagan and Juron Criner.
— Assuming Seymour is out, Desmond Howard will draw his second straight start at defensive tackle alongside Tommy Kelly.
— Marcel Reece will open at running back with McFadden and Goodson out, backed up by Jeremy Stewart, with Owen Schmitt playing fullback in formations that call for it.