Some stars shine brightest before bigger stars obscure them
Training camp brings excitement and optimism for all 32 NFL teams. For the Raiders, it represents the newness of a completely new regime and the intrigue of seeing how Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen can go about establishing their own culture of discipline and hard work to the Oakland Raiders.
Camp also allows lesser-known players the opportunity to shine. The Raiders have had no shortage of athletes who have shown flashes of being players who could make names for themselves on Sundays in the fall. As such, I present to you a collection of the best training camp/preseason players the Raiders have had.
Remember, these are guys who had more of an impact on the practice field and in preseason than Sundays in the regular season. That said, Raider fans will recognize a name or two on the list.
Without further ado...let's start with number five.
One of the hallmarks of Al Davis' long run as owner/general manager of the Oakland Raiders was his propensity to draft and sign players that were physically more impressive than other teams. Some guys became great players because of their own work ethic and football IQ (ex. Nnamdi Asomugha), and others have long since been forgotten (ex. Carlos Francis).
In the case of Johnnie Morant, he definitely leans toward the latter of those two. Morant was a 6'4", 229 pound project out of Syracuse University when the Raiders drafted him in 2004. Along with established veteran Jerry Porter and promising young receiver Doug Gabriel, Davis had visions of a large, speedy core of big receivers taking over for Jerry Rice and Tim Brown under new coach Norv Turner.
Morant did show flashes during the preseason when healthy. In 2005, he lead the team in catches and yards during the preseason. His entire time there were reports of dazzling catches and lots of potential—both in Napa for training camp and Alameda for practices.
For whatever reason, it never quite panned out for Morant. His three-year Oakland Raiders career saw him only catch eight passes for 90 yards before being cut after the 2006 season. A classic case of the physical tools not translating on to the playing field, if there ever was one.
AGB was usually MIA when the games counted.
The number four player on the list is a personal favorite of mine. Akbar Gbaja-Biamila was probably the most dominant preseason player the Raiders had on defense in the early to mid 2000's. The first time I saw him play, AGB had two sacks in the 2003 preseason opener against St. Louis. He seemed to have the tools to become a solid rotation player for the team's defensive line.
But like Morant, AGB's skills did not seem to translate to higher quality opposition. Unlike his brother Kabeer, who had a distinguished career with the Green Bay Packers, Akbar would only play 27 games with the Raiders in 2003 and 2004, compiling two sacks. But he was definitely a wonder during those preseasons.
In 2003, AGB led the NFL with five sacks in preseason, including those two against the St. Louis Rams. Against second team players, he was a man among boys, beating tackles off the edge with a quickness that would seem to translate against the best tackles in football.
But in the regular season, he was largely ineffective. This maddening pattern of great physical tools (6'5" and 270 pounds) that looked superior on one level—then ended up being completely useless when the games counted—haunted the Raiders throughout the 2000's.
Knight of the Preseason
The list reaches its halfway point with wide receiver Marcus Knight. The University of Michigan product played the most out of anyone on this list, actually appearing in Super Bowl XXXVII for the Raiders against Tampa Bay. Going into the 2001 season, there were raves about Knight's ability to return kicks, and how he could move on the fast track like Jerry Porter as he learned under future Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.
Unfortunately, the combination of three outstanding receivers and an overvalue of Knight's abilities prevented him from having the impact Bruce Allen, Jon Gruden and Al Davis thought he could have. Despite leading the team in both 2001 and 2002 in receptions during the preseason, Knight's potential never manifested itself onto the field as a receiver.
Knight did manage to average 24.3 yards per kickoff return in the 2002 regular season. However, that was the extent of his contribution.
In two years with the Silver and Black, Knight would only catch three passes for 26 yards before being released before the 2003 season began. He would never play in the NFL again.
Another Raider of the lost 90's, Billy Joe Hobert.
Classic Al Davis. That is what I think of when I remember Billy Joe Hobert. A strong-armed quarterback with a checkered past, Hobert was drafted in the third round of the 1993 NFL Draft out of Washington.
In both the regular season and the preseason, Hobert was the ultimate tease. His arm was Lamonica-esque but his propensity to make mistakes made you think Marc Wilson or Jay Schroeder.
Hobert's play had people buzzing in both Los Angeles and Oakland, as he showed more than flashes of his talent in the 1994, 1995, and 1996 preseasons. Hobert was so talented, the Raiders used him to kick a game winning 48-yard field goal against the Patriots in the 1994 preseason. The guy could do it all, and for three different years seemed to be someone the Raiders could depend on if starter Jeff Hostetler went down with injury.
And that is precisely what happened in the '95 and '96 seasons. Hostetler would miss five games due to injury, and Hobert started...and proceeded to lose all five starts. His numbers were not necessarily the worst, throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions on around 55 percent of his passes. The problem was, Hobert would always shine in situations without pressure.
For example, he relieved an ineffective Vince Evans in a 1995 showdown game with the Chiefs, throwing two fourth quarter touchdowns as the Raiders lost 23-29. Getting the starting job the following week against Pittsburgh, Hobert would throw four interceptions in a 10-29 rout. Like Rusty Hilger before him, Hobert was a guy with a big arm but not the other elements to be a great quarterback in the NFL.
For many, the name Louis Rankin conjures up images of a guy racking up yards in the preseason, with Oakland Raiders fans wondering, "why don't we play this guy more?"
Rankin's best efforts came in the 2008 preseason and training camp. Leading the NFL in yards in the preseason, Rankin's signature game came against the San Francisco 49ers. Backed by a 72-yard run, he would rack up 148 yards on 21 carries. It was thought Rankin had done enough to make the team, particularly after solid performances against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
But Rankin was released by Oakland during final cuts on August 30, only to be re-signed to the team's practice squad the following day.
The 2009 training camp and preseason was the same theme for Rankin as he lead the team in total yards, but wound up being released on September 25th, 2009. Rankin would then leave the Raiders, signing with the Seahawks. His final foray with the Raiders occurred in the 2011 offseason. But despite another solid training camp, the numbers game cost him, as the Raiders released him on September 3rd, 2011.
Currently, Rankin is a member of the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders.
There are plenty of names that have done great in the offseason and/or preseason for the Oakland Raiders. Madre Hill, Charles Jordan, Marques Tuiasosopo, Teyo Johnson, and recently Taiwan Jones.
Let us not undervalue the importance of camp and the production of players during the preseason. It does matter, and having coaches see what fringe players can do in game situations is supposed to be an invaluable resource.
However, as this list demonstrates, what you read about with training camp and seeing guys compete against other players competing for roster spots does not necessarily translate to greatness on the NFL level. For many, it is as good as it is going to get in the league.
Unfortunately, the Oakland Raiders have had the habit of giving players extended opportunities when it was clear their physical abilities did not sync up to what they actually did on the football field.
Even as we remember some of the guys who did not quite make the cut for the Raiders, here is to a new day where a guy can be seen more for what he does as a football player and less for how he looks as an athlete. These five players are proof that those two titles are not always mutually exclusive.