Hope springs eternal for the 2012 Oakland Raiders with training camp set to open in about a month.
Oakland enters this season with a new general manager in Reggie McKenzie, a new head coach in Dennis Allen and a talented roster bursting with potential.
McKenzie inherited a roster that was created based on questionable decisions. He quickly put his stamp on the team by releasing players like Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson and Kamerion Wimbley. With his work in free agency and the draft, McKenzie has created competition and excitement on this team.
That competition and excitement should bring the best out of the players on this roster heading into training camp. It also should give optimists a reason to get excited about the potential of this team.
So without further ado, here are the report card grades for every positional unit on the Oakland Raiders roster.
This is the make-or-break point in Carson Palmer's up-and-down career. Once considered a top quarterback in this league, he now has has a lot to prove.
Oakland gave up a first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick to get the now-32-year-old quarterback. In order for that trade to be deemed a success for the Raiders, he has to return to his 2005-06 form and guide this team into the playoffs.
Palmer can still make all the throws, and his mindset is in the right place. The big question heading into 2012 is whether or not he will be mobile enough to run new coordinator Greg Knapp's West Coast offense.
Matt Leinart will likely be the backup. He has worked with Knapp and this offense before and will likely work with Palmer in helping implement this new scheme.
Terrelle Pryor will benefit from an offseason this year, but he still has a lot of work to do. He is an intriguing prospect but will probably only see time in the event of injuries or poor performance.
ESPN's Ron Jaworski has Carson Palmer as his 21st-best quarterback in the NFL. Palmer would be a little higher on some lists, but that ranking seems fair. Leinart is serviceable and Pryor is raw with loads of potential. Overall, this unit is solid.
When healthy, Darren McFadden is one of the best running backs in the league. His combination of size, power and speed make him a force in the backfield. He broke out in 2010 with 1,157 yards on just 223 carries and was well on his way to another great season in 2011 before injuries limited him to seven games.
McFadden is the key to this offense. Assuming he can stay on the field and with Greg Knapp's zone-blocking rushing attack, he should be able to put up numbers similar to what Arian Foster has in Houston the past couple seasons.
Behind McFadden on the depth chart is Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones. Goodson is a good change-of-pace back with speed and nice receiving skills out of the backfield. He has been impressive thus far, but he will have to protect the football better if he expects touches.
Jones is small but very fast, and zone-blocking could work to his benefit. Look for him to get an opportunity to showcase what he can do a little this season as he heads into his second year in the league.
At fullback, the Raiders have Marcel Reece and Owen Schmitt. Reece is the most versatile fullback in the league. His speed and hands make him an effective receiver out of the backfield.
Schmitt is the perfect zone-blocking fullback and played under Knapp's system in Seattle.
It is hard not to like what Oakland has in the backfield. Expect contributions from all the names listed above. Reece is the wild card in this group, so look for him to be utilized in a lot of different ways in 2012.
The wide receiver position should be the most competitive training camp battle heading into 2012 for the Oakland Raiders.
Darrius Heyward-Bay finally displayed some skill in 2011 that warranted to why the Raiders selected him No. 7 overall in the 2009 NFL draft. He is known for his speed, but he showed that he can catch the ball in traffic. Look for more of that in 2012 with the West Coast offense.
Denarius Moore flashed great speed and athletic ability in his rookie campaign. He still needs to be more consistent and run better routes, but the potential is here.
Jacoby Ford is the ideal slot receiver. His speed and open-field abilities make him dangerous when he has the football. If he can stay healthy, he can be a difference-maker.
Things get interesting with some of the remaining headlining receivers for the Raiders. Louis Murphy, Juron Criner and Rod Streater all enter training camp battling for positions. Murphy enters his year with a chip on his shoulder and is out to prove that he can contribute.
Criner and Streater, meanwhile, have been darlings in OTAs. Criner is an ideal possession receiver. Streater, on the other hand, has caught the eyes of many heading into training camp after being signed as an undrafted free agent.
There is no real veteran presence in this unit, but they all have tremendous upside. This unit will be an intriguing watch. A lot of people have hopped on the Criner and Streater bandwagon, but do not be surprised if Murphy makes an impact in 2012.
The Raiders do have one burning question on offense: Who is going to start at tight end?
Greg Knapp likes to utilize this position in his scheme, so it's an important decision. As of now, the Raiders have David Ausberry, Richard Gordon, Brandon Myers and newly-signed veteran Tory Humphrey competing for the spot.
Myers is known more for his blocking skills, so do not expect him to win the job out of camp, but he will contribute.
The spot is going to come down to Ausberry and Gordon with Ausberry gaining the inside track to the job. He added about 15 pounds of muscle this offseason and has already garnered the confidence of quarterback Carson Palmer.
There is just a huge unknown with this group. There is no clear favorite as of now to win the job and not a lot of experience either.
The offensive line for the Raiders will have a couple minor tweaks heading into this season.
Stefan Wisniewski will move from left guard to center. After a wonderful rookie season, he will look to make an impact as the anchor of this unit. He is athletic and can get to the second level with ease, making him a perfect fit in the zone-blocking scheme.
Cooper Carlisle will move from right guard to left guard, making way for Mike Brisiel to fill the spot at right guard. The former Houston Texan helped pave the way for Arian Foster the past couple seasons and looks to do the same for Darren McFadden in 2012.
The tackles will be the same, as Jared Veldheer occupies the left side and Khalif Barnes takes the right tackle spot. Both are solid, but they will need to cut back on their holding penalties in 2012.
Joseph Barksdale and rookie Tony Bergstrom will be the main backups for the offensive line. Barksdale could be in line to take the right tackle position if Barnes slips up. Bergstrom can play all three interior line spots and will eventually replace Carlisle.
Another solid unit for the Raiders. One thing to keep an eye on is the penalties. The Raiders were the most penalized team in the NFL, and the offensive line was a big factor in that.
Head coach Dennis Allen was brought into Oakland for a reason: to fix the defense. In order for that to happen, the Raiders must get production up front on the defensive line.
The right players are certainly there to make that happen.
Tommy Kelly is another force in the middle for the Raiders. He is extremely quick off the ball and wreaks havoc in the backfield constantly. The team re-signed Desmond Bryant, another guy in the middle that can terrorize the quarterback.
The defensive end spots will be occupied by Lamarr Houston, Matt Shaughnessy and Dave Tollefson.
The Raiders are excited to have Shaughnessy back from injury after missing most of 2011. Seymour thinks Shaughnessy "is the best in the NFL against the run"—extremely high praise for a guy who is just entering his third NFL season.
Houston is also solid against the run; Tollefson brings toughness and leadership to this unit.
Rookies Jack Crawford and Christo Bilukidi provide depth but do not expect to contribute much in 2012.
Based on talent, this unit is one of the best in the league. Seymour and Kelly still produce at a high level, and they should be enthused to play in a system that Allen will utilize, hopefully feeding into the rest of the defense.
The Raiders linebackers look good on paper. This unit is a talented group that leaves a lot to be desired.
GM Reggie McKenzie has given middle linebacker Rolando McClain a vote of confidence. McClain has exceptional run-stopping skills but is a major liability in pass coverage. He has not lived to expectations, so it seems like this will be his last shot to prove that he is not a bust.
Aaron Curry was brought in last season via trade from Seattle. He is working to avoid being a bust as well. He did play pretty well for the Raiders last year, so look for him to continue to improve and be used in a lot of blitzing packages.
Philip Wheeler was brought in as a free agent; fourth-round pick Miles Burris will compete with him for the outside spot opposite Curry. Wheeler does not make the big flashy play but always is around the ball. Burris has looked good in minicamp and looks to continue that progress into training camp.
Rookie Nate Stupar and Travis Goethel form the rest of the depth at the position.
This group needs to start playing up to their potential if the Raiders expect to improve on defense. McClain is the key; if the Raiders can get him on track, they may have something special.
Cornerback is the biggest question mark for the Oakland Raiders on defense.
They cut both of 2011's starting cornerbacks in the offseason and signed three veterans to replace them.
Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer were signed and are expected to start in 2012. Both are coming off injuries and are average at best. The other veteran they brought in is Pat Lee, who is expected to compete with second-year corners DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa for the nickel spot.
Lee, Van Dyke and Chekwa all have similar skills. They are fast, but average to below-average cover guys.
This unit will be fighting an uphill battle all year. Having to face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers twice each will be no easy task, so this unit will have to rely on strong play from the front seven in order to be successful.
Strong safety Tyvon Branch is a future Pro Bowler as he continues to make plays in the back end for the Raiders. He is wrecking ball who has the ability to blow plays up at the line of scrimmage. Branch is a liability in coverage sometimes, but he has improved on that every season thus far, and that trend should continue in 2012.
Michael Huff and Matt Giordano make a nice combo at the free safety spot. Huff has big-play ability and also is excited to play a "real defense" this season. Giordano led the team with five interceptions in 2011 and could push Huff for extensive playing time this season.
Mike Mitchell has been a disappointment so far in Oakland and may be fighting for a job in training camp, especially if rookie free agent Aaron Henry has an impressive camp.
This is another solid unit for the Raiders, with Branch being the standout star. Look for this group to make a lot of plays all over the field in 2012.
The Oakland Raiders have the best kicking unit in the league. Placekicker Sebastian Janikowski hit seven field goals from 50 yards or longer, including an NFL-record-tying 63-yarder.
Punter Shane Lechler never gets the credit he deserves, but he has proven over and over that he is the league's best punter.
Long-snapper Jon Condo is as solid as they come. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2011.
The coverage units need work. The Raiders allowed three returns for touchdowns in 2011.
On returns, the Raiders have a lot of options. Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore are the main threats in the return game, but Oakland also has Mike Goodson, Bryan McCann and rookie free agent Chaz Powell capable of running returns.
Simply put, the Raiders are great on special teams. A few tweaks with coverage, and Oakland will be just fine.