The last six years have come to be known as the dark ages for the Oakland Raiders. A team that once held the highest winning percentage in all of professional sports has now become the dead horse that is continuously kicked over and over again by the talking heads at ESPN and similar sports media outlets.
One does not have to look very far past the 24-72 record since the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers and the revolving door at head coach to see why very few journalists have anything positive to say about this once proud franchise. It is up to the newly implemented coaching regime to bring glory back to Oakland.
The Raiders were considered to have had a near flawless offseason until the draft. The team resigned key free agents Chris Johnson, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Shane Lechler without having to use the franchise tag.
They also resigned several key role players including kick returner Justin Miller and special teams ace Isaiah Ekejiuba. They added key free agents Khalif Barnes and Jeff Garcia as well as center Samson Satele via trade to replace the departed Jake Grove. They lost virtually no impact players. In fact, the release of Kwame Harris is really addition by subtraction.
Then the draft came and went and every analyst and so called draft expert who could get camera time suggested that Al Davis had blown a gasket as they tore into the legendary owner’s selections. It is important to keep in mind the fact that there is a reason why these analysts and so called experts are making mock drafts and not working in the scouting department for an NFL franchise.
Every player has a chance to boom or bust, even the supposed sure fire selections. Don’t forget there was a heated debate over who was the better quarterback, Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.
The Raiders first two selections, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and SS Mike Mitchell, both have tremendous upside and while analysts were quick to point out their weaknesses. Very few talked of their strengths, tremendous potential, and the fact that both fill huge holes that needed to be addressed. Just because Michael Crabtree put up big numbers in a pass first spread offense and Mike Mayock declared him the No. 1 WR on the board, does not make that the predetermined reality.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has a freakish skill set. Everybody mentioned his blistering 40 time of 4.3 seconds, a combine best, but not many mentioned his excellent jumping ability and knack for adjusting to the ball in mid air. Another thing to consider is the fact that DHB played in a pro style offense at Maryland, similar to what the Raiders run, where he regularly faced double teams.
The Raiders leading receiver last season was Johnnie Lee Higgins who caught 22 balls for 366 yards. DHB has an excellent opportunity to eclipse those numbers and will be given every opportunity to lead the WR corps in receiving, all while playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Mike Mitchell also has a lot to prove after being blasted by the likes of Mel Kiper and company. Mitchell was not invited to the combine and few fans had heard his name prior to the draft. Most draft guides likely had him going in the last rounds or undrafted. Instead the Raiders made him the highest safety picked. If his highlight videos on youtube are any indication, they may have found a diamond in the rough.
Mitchell can deliver the knockout blow, literally. According to Mitchell, he has knocked three players out cold on the field. Not only can he hit, he is fundamentally sound in coverage. He also displays top end speed as he ran a 4.43 40 at his pro day at Ohio University, a time that is extra impressive when you consider his big 220 pound frame.
The Raiders have had trouble filling the hole at safety since returning to Oakland in 1996. They signed Gibril Wilson to a large contract last season, but he struggled in coverage and was released after one season. After Kiper’s heavy criticism, Mitchell is looking to prove he was the right pick to fill that hole in the back of the secondary.
Going into the offseason the Raiders had holes to fill at WR, OT, C, DT, DE, SS, and SLB. They got their WR in DHB. Khalif Barnes is arguably the most important free agent signing. He started four seasons in Jacksonville and was very solid up until last season when the entire Jaguars line struggled. They also added Erik Pears and Marcus Johnson.
Pears was a two year starter in Denver before being sidelined last season due to injury. Johnson is a former second round pick who has yet to live up to potential. Both players are ideal fits for the zone blocking scheme. Another good fit for the ZBS is newly acquired Samson Satele, a player who has proven he can stay healthy unlike Jake Grove. Mike Mitchell will be battling last years fourth round selection Tyvon Branch to start at SS.
So what did Oakland do to address last season’s 31st ranked rush defense? From a personnel standpoint basically nothing. The lone free agent addition to the defensive line was Ryan Boschetti, a former undrafted free agent who has seen extremely limited playing time in Washington. It is hard to imagine Boschetti making a big impact, if he even makes the team.
William Joseph, an underachieving former first round pick, was brought back. Joseph spent portions of last season on the roster, but saw limited action. The Raiders completely neglected the DT position in the draft, only adding UFA Desmond Bryant out of Harvard. Bryant faces an uphill battle to make the final cut.
Oakland did add a couple defensive ends in the draft. Matt Shaughnessy was drafted out of Wisconsin in the third. He is not the type of player who is expected to make an immediate impact against the run. He is an undersized DE, standing at 6’5” 260, and reportedly does not have great strength. He may become a force against the run in the future. He has the type of frame to add weight and muscle to, but he may not be the difference maker in the short term.
In the fourth round the Raiders drafted Slade Norris who played DE and OLB for Oregon State. The Raiders played him at Sam linebacker in minicamp, which is a better fit than end as he stands at 6’2” 231. Norris will compete with Ricky Brown and Jon Alston to start on the strong side. If he can win the job, it would give the Raiders a SLB with ideal size and good speed.
In the sixth round the Raiders grabbed another hybrid DE/OLB, Stryker Sulak, out of Missouri. In the recent minicamp Sulak was lining up at DE with the second string. At 6’4” 240, Sulak is certainly not the size of a typical run stopping DE and his biggest asset to the defense will be as a pass rush specialist.
So with the addition of all of the undersized DEs and with neglecting the DT position, how does Oakland plan to turn around their flimsy run defense? According to head coach Tom Cable, it is all in the scheme that will be implemented by new defensive coordinator Jim Marshall.
Cable admits that the scheme will be similar to what the Raiders currently run, but there will be a major adjustment to fundamentals. This is Marshall’s fourth stint as a defensive coordinator. Here are the teams for which he has led the defense:
97: SF 13-3 (NFC Championship loss to GB)
98: SF 12-4 (Divisional loss to Atl)
99: Car 8-8
00: Car 7-9
01: Car 1-15
05: Sea 13-3 (Super Bowl loss to Pitt)
06: Sea 9-7 (Divisional loss to Chi)
07: Sea 10-6 (Divisional loss to GB)
08 Sea 4-12
It appears that defenses led by Marshall make the playoffs more often than not and his first year as coordinator for each team has resulted in the team’s best record during his stay. Marshall has over 40 years of coaching experience and has led everything from a Super Bowl Seahawks team to a near winless Panthers squad.
During his time in Seattle his defenses ranked 18th, 12th, 22nd, and 5th against the run. His Carolina defenses ranked 31st, 26th, and 24th. His defenses were essential to the 49ers success in the late 90’s as his squads ranked 9th and 2nd in rush defense.
At this point it is difficult to ascertain how different the system will be, especially because Marshall has not been made available to the media. The biggest question is: will he utilize more blitz packages to apply pressure? Lack of blitzing was a cause for many fans to criticize his predecessor Rob Ryan. What does Cable mean when he says the fundamentals will change?
One thing Ryan’s defenses were known for was lack of accountability, with loose assignments and an emphasis for the playmakers of the defense to make plays. If Marshall can make it clear to each player what their responsibilities and assignments are, it will be a huge step in the right direction.
Marshall’s mission is to put into action a plan that will utilize the same players that made up last season’s underachieving defensive line. Many have claimed that Tommy Kelly did not play up to the big contract he signed last offseason. However, if you take the time to compare his stats to the elite DTs in the league, his numbers are right there with the best of them. In his second season coming back from major ACL surgery he should be even more of a force.
Gerard Warren has shown the ability to get to the quarterback during his time in Oakland, but has some room for improvement as a run stopper. A few years ago Terdell Sands showed a potential to be dominant and signed a generous contract. Since then his play has been more than disappointing. At times he displays flashes of greatness but he is so inconsistent that at times he is more of a liability on the field.
Cable has reported that Sands has lost a considerable amount of weight and had a good minicamp. One of Marshall’s goals has to be to unlock Sands potential. If he can eat up some double teams, it will free up Kelly to do some special things.
Marshall also has some interesting young talent to mold at DE. Jason Richardson has been a pleasant surprise since his selection in the sixth round in 2007. He is a true run stopper at end with good size and power. Derrick Burgess is in a contract year and will be playing his tail off trying to set himself up for a good contract in the offseason.
Trevor Scott showed that he can be a force as a pass rusher as a rookie last season. Scott led the team with five sacks, but it is up to Marshall to make him into a complete player who can stop the run.
Greyson Gunheim is another interesting player in the equation. He is a big strong player who saw limited action at the end of last season. He clinched the Raiders victory against the Buccaneers by recording a sack on Jeff Garcia. It is up to Marshall, and new defensive line coach Dwaine Board, to get the most out of each of these players.
If Marshall cannot devise a scheme to shut down opposing running backs, 2009 will be another painful and forgettable season for the Raider Nation. While we will have to wait for the season to start to truly see what changes have been implemented, one thing that is clear is that Marshall’s vast experience will be a valuable addition. After all, the one constant during this abysmal six year stretch is five years of Rob Ryan’s lousy rush defense.
Maybe Marshall is the just the prescription that the doctor ordered. The success of the Raiders depends on it.