2009 Campaign: 10 Raiders to Watch
The 2009 campaign brings up a lot of questions in terms of player personnel. Six consecutive losing seasons will do that to a team.
After dishing out big money to bring back homegrown All-Pros, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and punter Shane Lechler, Al Davis and the Raiders ran a fairly conservative ship most of the off-season.
Aside from the tragic loss of special teams linebacker Marquis Cooper, this past off-season was fairly quiet.
This is a stark contrast to last off-season where Al Davis doled out massive contracts to flashy, yet questionable talent such as Deangelo Hall, Gibril Wilson, and Javon Walker, just to name a few.
Coupled with a public feud between former coach Lane Kiffin and the longtime owner, last off-season was anything but quiet.
This off-season was viewed as conservative, at least by Raiders standards. The Raiders, ability to re-sign Asomugha and Lechler, two of their longest tenured players and best at their position, spoke volumes in terms of the direction the team was heading.
Many “experts” assumed the team would lose one, or both players due to their losing ways.
Tom Cable’s interim title was lifted as he was named full time head coach, amidst the death of his father.
The Raiders appeared to have turned over a new leaf under Cable, focusing on keeping their own team intact, rather than signing the sexiest players available as they have in years past.
Then came the 2009 draft. Al Davis made this year the ultimate boom bust draft class, selecting Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Mike Mitchell, with picks 7 and 47, respectively.
Davis was crucified by the media for swinging for the fences, but only time will tell if he struck gold or struck out.
With most of the team’s young nucleus returning in 2009, here is a breakdown of 10 key Oakland Raiders to watch in the 2009 season.
10. Michael Huff
Will he get a fresh start under new defensive coordinator John Marshall? Can he blossom in his third season, similar to Nnamdi Asomugha? Will he even make the 53-man roster?
Owner Al Davis has shown he is neither cheap, nor afraid to jettison dead weight. Just ask Deangelo Hall.
Davis claims Huff was former coach Art Shell’s pick. Huff was benched in favor of undrafted safeties Hiram Eugene and Rashad Baker.
With second year safety Tyvon Branch waiting in the wings, as well as 2009 second-round pick Mike Mitchell; the former seventh overall pick needs to make an impact, or he might lose his Raiders scholarship.
Prediction: If Huff doesn’t impress in training camp, look for Davis to cut his losses and trade Huff for a late round pick to a team desperately in need of safety help. Think Dallas, Chicago or San Francisco.
9. Thomas Howard/Kirk Morrison
Morrison is a good, smart, all around linebacker, plus he grew up in Oakland. He has led the Raiders in tackles the past two seasons and is solid in pass defense.
Howard’s "Raider speed" makes it nearly impossible for opposing running backs to beat him outside. He has also developed into a great pass defender. After registering six INTs in 2007, quarterbacks were reluctant to test him in 2008.
The “Firm” of Howard and Morrison look to rebound under new defensive coordinator John Marshall. After playing Pro Bowl-caliber football in 2007, both had a rather ordinary season in 2008.
Head Coach Tom Cable put much of the blame for 2008’s defensive failures on former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Can John Marshall utilize Morrison and Howard like he did Julian Peterson, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill in Seattle?
Prediction: With Al Davis’ blessing, John Marshall will blitz The Firm more in 2009. Barring injury, both should flirt with Pro Bowl consideration.
8. Tommy Kelly
After signing a hefty contract in 2008, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly needs to prove he was worth the money. Coming off 2007 ACL surgery, Kelly had a rather lackluster seaon following his big payday.
However, toward the end of season, he did seem to look more like the force that prompted then defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, to claim he was the best three technique in the NFL.
When healthy, the versatile Kelly can be counted on to stop the run, as well as rush the passer.
Kelly is now almost two years removed from injury, and will be relied upon heavily in order for the Raiders’ defense to be successful this season. The Raiders defense will go as Kelly does in 2009.
Prediction: Look for Kelly to have another solid yet unspectacular season in 2009. The Raiders will improve upon their 31st ranked run defense if Kelly stays healthy.
7. Darrius Heyward-Bey
With owner Al Davis reaching for DHB in the first round with "the pick heard around the world," all eyes will be on the vertical threat selected with the seventh overall pick.
If the speedy Heyward-Bey makes a splash his rookie season, the talking heads in the media will claim “Al Davis did it again?”
If the he doesn’t, Al Davis will be criticized for being crazy and told the game has passed him by.
The truth is it can take up to three seasons for anyone to really know how good DHB is.
As long as he brings down the catchable balls thrown his way, blocks, and works hard, Davis and the Nation should give this kid a pass.
Prediction: Guys with DHB’s size, speed, and athleticism just don’t come out of the draft every year. Defenses will have to respect his natural talents, therefore limiting the amount of press coverage and eight-man fronts the Raider offense will see.
Whether he receives the credit or not, by DHB simply being on the field, the trickle-down effect will benefit the entire offense, similar to Darren McFadden.
6. Derrick Burgess
After being selected as a Pro Bowl starter his first two seasons in Oakland, Burgess has struggled to stay on the field battling injuries the past two seasons.
While Burgess may have lost a step, he is still the Raiders best pass rusher. His 38.5 sacks over his four year tenure in Oakland are by far the most by any Raider in that time span.
Burgess has been unhappy with his contract basically his entire time with the Raiders. Can he regain his Pro Bowl form in a contract year? Or will age and injuries catch up to the former Pro Bowler.
Prediction: Look for defensive coordinator John Marshall to use Burgess more as a pass rush specialist in 2009; similar to how he was utilized in 2005, when he registered a career high 16 sacks.
Burgess will be best served to sit out running downs to minimize wear and tear on his injury-prone body.
Barring injury, Burgess will register double-digit sack totals in a contract year.
5. Michael Bush
After essentially red-shirting his rookie season, recovering from a career threatening leg fracture in college, Bush has made Davis and company look like geniuses for drafting him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
Buried behind Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas on the depth chart, Bush was able to amass 583 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in very limited action. Bush even saw action at fullback due to injury.
Bush may have forced head coach Tom Cable’s hand by rushing for an impressive 177 yards and two touchdowns against a strong Tampa Bay defense.
En route to knocking the Buccaneers out of the playoffs, Bush showcased his rare combination of size, speed and power that made him a Heisman trophy candidate in college prior to his injury.
Prediction: Bush is just too good to not get more carries in 2009. With durability questions surrounding both Fargas and McFadden, Bush will definitely get a look.
He has already proven to be a dominant runner when given an opportunity, and just may take over the starting tailback spot.
4. Zach Miller
The favorite target of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Miller led Oakland with 56 reception and 778 yards.
Miller proved to have a knack for getting open, and displayed exceptional hands in bringing down tough passes from strong-armed quarterback Russell.
Miller played through 2008 with a sports hernia proving his toughness as well.
Coach Tom Cable spoke on numerous occasions of getting Miller “married” to a blocking tight end to ease some of the physical burden from him so he can focus more on receiving.
Miller should also benefit from a dynamic running game and an improved offensive line.
First round speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey should stretch the field, and the development of fellow receivers Chaz Shilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins should take even more pressure off Miller.
Prediction: With Tony Gonzalez now in the NFC, Miller has a legitimate shot at making the Pro Bowl this season. The Raiders seem to be set at the tight end position for the foreseeable future.
3. Mario Henderson
Drafted in the third round of the 2007 draft out of Florida State, Henderson was deemed a project.
After Henderson took harsh criticism from former coach Lane Kiffin, head coach Tom Cable appears to have developed Henderson into an NFL starter.
After taking over the left tackle position from penalty machine Kwame Harris, Henderson did not give up a sack or register a penalty.
He started in three of Oakland’s five wins in 2008. Shutting out elite pass rushers like Mario Williams, and Richard Seymour in the process.
When Henderson was in the lineup, the Raiders offense simply played better. Reports out of minicamp are that Henderson is playing with confidence and is working hard to keep free agent addition and former Jaguar Khalif Barnes at bay.
Can Mario be super and fill the franchise left tackle role the Raiders have been lacking for years? If so, there might be no limit to what the collection of talented, young Raider skill position players can achieve.
Prediction: Henderson showed flashes of greatness when given the opportunity in 2008.
In 2009, look for Henderson to retain his job at left tackle, relegating Khalif Barnes to right tackle and making Al Davis look good for trading up in the 2007 draft to pick him.
2. Darren McFadden
If Darren McFadden can stay healthy, he is one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. D-Mac strikes fear in the hearts of NFL defenses simply by being on the field.
In 2008, McFadden displayed exceptional hands and pass catching ability in traffic. Combined with his explosiveness out of the backfield, D-Mac's presence alone makes all of his teammates better.
Last years fourth overall pick needs to prove he can stay healthy enough to be the home run hitter the Raiders desperately need. If not, he could see himself losing reps to hungry bruiser Michael Bush.
Prediction: McFadden and his custom made steel toe shoes will prove last years durability issues were a fluke. He will amass at least 1,000 all-purpose yards and should finally get to truly showcase his breakaway speed and game-changing ability.
1. JaMarcus Russell
2009 is a critical year for the strong-armed former No. 1 overall pick. Dubbed the face of the franchise and given an astronomical contract, the Raiders will go as far as Russell can take them in 2009.
Al Davis has put a lot pieces in place for Russell to succeed. The Raiders already have a solid running game, and with expected upgrades to the offensive line and receiving corps, Russell should have no excuse for not playing well.
Can the third year quarterback finally quiet critics? Or will free agent, former Pro Bowler, Jeff Garcia mentor Russell all the way to the bench?
Prediction: The constant pressure felt from Garcia will elevate Russell’s game to a whole new level. Russell will carry the momentum of his solid play toward the end of the 2008 season into 2009, and will bring the Raiders back to respectability.
If not, Jeff Garcia could pull a Kurt Warner, and take over the helm of the Raiders ship. Seeking one last Super Bowl run in the twilight of his career.
I'm reluctantly putting my money on Russell.