Oakland Raiders: 9 Ways the Roster Has Improved This Offseason
The Raiders' salary cap situation forced general manager Reggie McKenzie to release a few solid players this offseason. Notable players the Raiders had to let go because of the salary cap: Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt.
It's difficult to improve when two productive veteran players are released, particularly when both players help defend against the pass and the NFL continues to favor the passing game.
Despite the challenges, McKenzie has improved the roster just not with big names or at the positions that grab a lot of attention.
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The Raiders will switch back to the zone-blocking scheme this season and the first move McKenzie made was bringing in offensive line help.
The principles of the zone-blocking scheme can be boiled down to smart offensive lineman and a decisive and smart running back. In many cases the talent of the players is secondary.
The Raiders' first offseason addition was right guard Mike Brisiel. For the past two seasons Brisiel has been zone blocking for undrafted running back Arian Foster who has quickly become an NFL star.
Prior to losing Brisiel to injury, the Texans had a total of three losses. Two losses were on the road against New Orleans and Baltimore and other a last-second home loss to the Raiders the day after Al Davis died.
Brisiel will be a key member of the Raiders' offensive line in 2012 as the Raiders begin the transition back to the zone-blocking scheme. He'll be an improvement over Cooper Carlisle at right guard.
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Stefan Wisniewski will shift from left guard to his more natural center position in 2011. While Wisniewski proved his versatility in 2011, he should be a much better center than guard in the NFL.
There is a little evidence that Wisniewski will be better at center because he started one game at center in 2011 and it was the Raiders' second most productive rushing game of the season.
What does a single game last season have to do with Wisniewski in the new zone-blocking scheme?
Without getting too specific, the zone-blocking scheme is still just man blocking when the lineman is covered by a defender.
That means Wisniewski will be man blocking against teams that use the 34 defense. Half of the Raiders opponents in 2012 use the 34 defense and several others could experiment with hybrids such as Ron Rivera's defense in and Mike Nolan's defense in Atlanta.
The installation of Wisniewski as the starting center will be an improvement at center and as long as the Raiders can find a suitable starter at left guard for the entire offensive line as well.
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The Denver Broncos turned out productive running games throughout the 1990s with inferior running backs thanks to the zone-blocking scheme.
Brian Billick broke down running backs in the Denver zone-blocking scheme with a great video for NFL.com back in 2008.
It's not hard to imagine McFadden having a monster year in the zone-blocking system given the improved talent on the offensive line.
Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is a big believer in the zone-blocking scheme and how it benefits the running back and he outlined his experience with the zone-blocking scheme after a mini-camp (via insidebayarea.com)
I probably have been in a very unique situation from a coaching perspective in that I’ve gone to four different places and have implemented the zone scheme or it was already implemented when I was there. So when I was in Atlanta. Warrick Dunn had his career best season, running the zone scheme. That was with Alex Gibbs. Then when I came here, Tom Cable was the O-line coach with new linemen, and Justin Fargas runs for 1,000. I go up to Seattle and Justin Forsett averages 5.4 a carry and 600 yards in half a season. Then I go to Houston – all these places ran the zone scheme – and an undrafted rookie leads the NFL in rushing.
There is just no denying the success of the zone scheme when it comes to the running game. It works.
McFadden's lack of success as a rookie had more to do with the offensive line talent and turf toe in both feet than it did with scheme.
It's worth noting he had the exact same number of carries and touchdowns in the last zone-blocking season (2008) as the man-blocking season (2011).
The scheme actually plays to McFadden's strengths, which is one cut and run. What coach wouldn't want to get McFadden into the second level of the defense?
McFadden has never been a dancer and the zone-scheme relies on the a smart a decisive runner and by all accounts McFadden fits that description.
The Raiders also traded for Mike Goodson and he's already well-versed in the zone-blocking scheme from his time in Carolina. Similarly he's a one-cut runner that has enough speed to be a productive running back if McFadden gets hurt.
Taiwan Jones has the most to learn, but could be very good in the zone-blocking scheme if he learns to be more decisive. Decisive, smart and fast are probably the three most important qualities for a running back in the zone scheme in that order.
A properly blocked zone play will net at least a few yards if the running back is decisive. That same play might go for 10 yards if the back is also smart. That same play might go for 40 if the player is decisive, smart and fast.
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The Raiders have a respectable backup quarterback in 2011 and shouldn't have to trade a first and a second-round pick because the team has no confidence him.
Matt Leinart is one of the Raiders' better pickups this offseason and improves the roster in many ways.
Leinart has been schooled in Greg Knapp's offensive scheme and will help Carson Palmer and Terrelle Pryor learn. He's also a veteran and the Raiders will not hesitate to turn to him as the starter if Palmer goes down with an injury.
Pryor will benefit from having two veteran quarterbacks on the team that had to wait for their opportunity like he does. Carson Palmer sat on the bench his rookie year behind Jon Kitna and Matt Leinart sat behind Kurt Warner for four seasons and has yet to get another starting shot.
Couple the addition of Leinart with a full offseason program for Palmer and Pryor and the Raiders should be highly improved at quarterback from top to bottom in 2012.
Right Defensive End
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Matt Shaughnessy was poised for a breakout year in 2011 when it was ended by a shoulder injury sustained in Week 3. Desmond Bryant filled in admirably for Shaughnessy, but at the expense of depth at defensive tackle.
Bryant is also not nearly as good rushing the quarterback from the defensive end position as he is from the defensive tackle position and the injury likely cost the Raiders some pass rush at both positions.
The Raiders brought in veteran defensive end Dave Tollefson from New York Giants to help the rotation as well. Tollefson is a pass-rush specialist that should help the Raiders replace a little of what was lost when the team release Kamerion Wimbley.
Lamarr Houston's sack numbers didn't reflect his productivity last season. He should continue his steady improvement and turn some of his quarterback pressures into sacks in 2012.
The defensive line group is deep in Oakland and the greatest improvement in 2012 should come at defensive end.
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In 2011, the Raiders used a combination of Manase Tonga and tight end Richard Gordon as blocking fullbacks.
Gordon was an emergency fullback that is needed for tight end depth in 2012. Tonga had offseason knee surgery and will be out until training camp according to head coach Dennis Allen via Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times.
Owen Schmitt has been a blocking fullback in the zone-blocking scheme since he came into the league and helped pave the way for fourth-ranked rusher LeSean McCoy in 2011.
The blocking fullback might be one of the most unappreciated jobs in football and Schmitt will is the type of player that will run through a wall for his team.
Schmitt has an opportunity to get a lot of playing time in Oakland and should significantly improve the Raiders' backfield blocking.
Outside Linebacker Depth
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The Raiders released Kamerion Wimbley and did not re-sign Quentin Groves, but they did add valuable depth at outside linebacker through free agency and the draft.
Last season the Raiders basically had no depth at outside linebacker and they were lucky enough to get Aaron Curry via trade with the Seattle Seahawks.
Coming into 2012, the Raiders have added veteran Philip Wheeler to start opposite Curry and drafted Miles Burris. The will also look at former University of Nevada defensive end Kaelin Burnett as a pass-rush specialist.
Head coach Dennis Allen singled out Burnett as a stand out after the Raiders' rookie mini-camp.
There will be some drop off in pass rush because Wimbley is gone, but the depth is better and the Raiders will try to do more to create pressure than they did in 2011.
No. 2 Cornerback
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Chris Johnson was the starting cornerback opposite Stanford Routt to start the 2011 season. After an injury to Johnson the Raiders turned to rookies Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke for a couple weeks before signing Lito Sheppard.
Sheppard ended up starting the most games for the Raiders opposite Routt.
Sheppard and Johnson were released and veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer comes over from the San Francisco 49ers to solidify the position.
Spencer became the odd-man out in San Francisco under the Jim Harbaugh regime, but is still a quality cornerback that is a welcome upgrade to Sheppard and Johnson.
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The Raiders should play Michael Huff at free safety exclusively in 2012. In 2011, Huff was forced into duty as a nickel cornerback with mixed results.
Huff was second team All-Pro in 2010 as a free safety and is much better suited to patrol the middle of the field and keep his eyes on the play than turn and run with a receiver.
Using Huff as a cornerback also meant using someone else at free safety and that someone was Matt Giordano in 2011. Giordano wasn't bad in pass coverage, but didn't do a good job supporting the run and was frequently out of position to make a tackle.
Hopefully the Raiders fully commit to using Huff as a free safety and don't continue the flirtation with moving him to cornerback. If Huff remains a full-time free safety the Raiders' roster will be better for it.
With few real alternatives at free safety, the Raiders also don't have much of a choice.