Oakland Raiders: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Heading into Camp
With the Oakland Raiders reporting to their 2013 training camp at the end of the week, the most important season to date in Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen’s rebuilding of this franchise will begin.
While the Raiders lost plenty of talented players due to salary cap issues this offseason, additions through both free agency and the draft have allowed for significant improvement at several positions throughout the roster.
If some of the younger players can step up and contribute from key positions, the Raiders could surprise some people around the league in 2013.
Here, I grade the strength of every Oakland Raiders position group heading into camp.
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Although Carson Palmer struggled in 2012, it is no secret that he, much like several other players on offense, was no fit for Greg Knapp’s scheme.
Moving on from Palmer was undoubtedly the right move for a rebuilding Raiders franchise, and especially so considering the resultant financial relief, but the talent at the quarterback position has certainly taken a hit.
The Raiders’ training camp will play host to a very interesting quarterback competition between Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson.
Flynn, the veteran looking to prove what he is capable of as an NFL starter, will have the early advantage over the two younger players, and it should essentially be his job to lose.
There is plenty of potential with this group, but that potential will have to turn into production in a hurry to get any higher of a grade.
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When healthy and in the right offensive system, Darren McFadden is among the most dangerous and productive running backs in the NFL. Pairing him with Marcel Reece, who is easily the league’s most dynamic fullback, gives the Raiders even more ways to attack a defense.
Behind McFadden on the running back depth chart are two intriguing players. Rashad Jennings, a free-agent acquisition from the Jacksonville Jaguars, started his career with two consecutive seasons of over five yards per carry, but struggled throughout the 2012 season.
Latavius Murray, one of the Raiders’ sixth-round selections from April’s draft, has the rare combination of size and speed needed for success at the next level. He will compete for the primary backup role behind McFadden from the beginning of camp.
With McFadden as the starter, two capable ball-carriers behind him, and the versatile Marcel Reece at fullback, this group will be one of the best and most important for the Raiders in 2013.
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Heading into training camp, there are plenty of questions about the Raiders’ wide receiver position.
While there are a good number of players on the roster to fight for the primary roles here, experience is certainly not on the side of this group.
Early on in camp, the Raiders need one of their young pass-catchers to step up and become a reliable No. 1 target. The early assumption is that player could be Denarius Moore, but again, the competition will be wide open.
Although the running game will be what this offense is built around in 2013, contributions from young, talented players like Moore, Jacoby Ford, Rod Streater and Juron Criner would go a very long way to giving the offensive attack some balance.
However, for the time being, this will be considered one of the weaker units on the roster.
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With the Giants’ free-agent signing of Brandon Myers, the Raiders lost one of their most productive pass-catchers from 2012.
Whether or not Myers’ production came in “garbage time” of losing efforts, it is still production that the Raiders must replace with one of their young tight ends fighting for the starting spot on camp.
David Ausberry finally developing into the downfield threat that the Raiders have long envisioned him becoming would be the best-case scenario, but that is not something they can bank on.
As such, sixth-round rookies Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera will get opportunities to earn some significant playing time of their own.
Either way, this group’s lack of experience and NFL production makes it quite similar to that of the receiving corps—and thus one of the biggest question marks on the roster.
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The switch back to a gap/man-blocking scheme should go a long way to helping this offensive line make some immediate improvements heading into the 2013 season.
With Jared Veldheer at left tackle and Stefen Wisniewski at center, the Raiders have the offensive line’s two most important positions held down with two very impressive young talents.
Across the rest of the starting front there are indeed some question marks, but the presence of second-round draft pick Menelik Watson and his capability to push for the starting right tackle job could settle some of those in a big way.
Again, the blocking scheme change will be key for this group, and an expected improvement in the running game should help the offense in all facets.
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Although the Raiders lost some pretty big names on the defensive line this offseason, the turnover may be a good thing moving forward.
With a young star in Lamarr Houston and an experienced veteran in Andre Carter at defensive end, the Raiders return a solid starting group there.
At defensive tackle, free-agent additions Vance Walker and Pat Sims should allow for some significant improvement in run defense, with Walker adding pass-rush capability as well.
With a relatively solid starting group across the defensive front, the problem at both positions will continue to be depth.
Contributions from young rotational players here would be extremely beneficial but cannot be considered a given. Expect the Raiders to be active on the waiver wire, looking to add defensive linemen when it comes time for final roster cuts.
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During a busy free-agency period, the Raiders were able to add three solid veteran linebackers in Kevin Burnett, Nick Roach and Kaluka Maiava. Along with third-round draft pick Sio Moore, each should compete for the three starting positions in the Raiders’ base 4-3 front.
Most notable about this potential starting group is the balance it brings in each player’s capability to play both the run and pass.
In 2012, the Raiders’ pass coverage woes from the linebacker position stood out in a big way. The difference with this group should be clear early on.
What’s more, the offseason additions will likely push other players, and former starters like Miles Burris, to backup roles, thus improving the depth significantly.
Overall, linebacker is now one of the deepest and most improved position groups on this Raiders team.
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Much like the Raiders’ linebacker position, cornerback has had some significant upgrades through both the draft and free agency.
If first-round draft pick D.J. Hayden is healthy heading into camp, he should have no problem earning one of the two starting spots.
Veteran free-agent additions Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins will also compete to have significant roles, and they will do so with returning players Phillip Adams and Joselio Hanson.
Some inconsistent play of late keeps the grade from being any higher, but this group is much improved heading into 2013. The positional competition should be one of the most interesting to follow throughout training camp.
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Safety was a position that struggled for the Raiders in 2012, and those struggles were highlighted even more when Michael Huff was forced to make the switch to cornerback.
Now, pairing Charles Woodson with Tyvon Branch on the back end, the Raiders have a much-improved group, one that should provide the leaders of the defense as well.
The Woodson signing also pushes Usama Young to a third safety/backup role at both spots, thus giving the position more depth than it has had in quite some time.
Overall, adding Woodson’s veteran presence and ability to create turnovers at free safety will be big not only for the Raiders’ defense as a whole, but also to free up Tyvon Branch to make plays.
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Still among the league’s best place-kickers, Sebastian Janikowski has been one of the Raiders’ lone markers of consistency over the past decade.
Where this year’s special teams unit differs is the unknown at punter with the departure of Shane Lechler.
Second-year player Marquette King has more than enough power to be a solid NFL punter, but he must show the necessary consistency throughout training camp to win the job over veteran Chris Kluwe.
Also key to this unit is two-time Pro Bowl long snapper Jon Condo, as well as two of the most dangerous return men in the NFL, Jacoby Ford and Josh Cribbs.
The Raiders’ special teams are once again supremely talented, but their overall success should come down to how well they can replace a future Hall of Famer in Shane Lechler.