Russell, McFadden, and Heyward-Bey: Cornerstones of an Oakland Revival?

Dom MitchellContributor IMay 20, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 08:  JaMarcus Russell #2 of the Oakland Raiders hands the ball off to Darren McFadden #20 against the Denver Broncos during an NFL game at McAfee Coliseum on September 8, 2008 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

It is often said that great franchises build not through free agency or trades, but through the draft. Such is the example of powerhouse teams like New England and Pittsburgh in recent years.

After some disastrous free agent signings (and trades)—DeAngelo Hall, Kwame Harris, Javon Walker, and Randy Moss, to name a few—the Raiders have started the 2009 offseason by re-signing two of their best players (Nnamandi Asomugha and Shane Lechler) as well as corner back Chris Johnson (though his signing has still to be announced) and drafting numerous players with good character who fill needs on the team.

However, the build-through-the-draft policy arguably has been in effect for the past three seasons, with the Raiders having drafted three players who they hope will be the nucleus of the offense with their last three No.1 picks: JaMarcus Russell in 2007, Darren McFadden in 2008, and most recently Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2009.

Due to his long running contract dispute in 2007, 2008 was effectively Russell's rookie season. While Russell astounded no one in his first season as starter, he posted a QB rating of 77.1, only slightly below the league average on a team whose leading receiver caught 22 passes for 366 yards and four TDs. This was also accomplished while transitioning  between three different play callers on a team that didn't pass all that much.

There were bright spots—a 111.1 rating in Week One, 149.1 in Week 12, and 128.1 in Week 16, as well as ending the season with 626 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions in three games.

And there were dark spots—five games with QB ratings below 70 and three games with fewer than 70 passing yards.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is inconsistency. If, with an upgraded receiving corps in 2009, Russell could increase his QB rating by just five points, he would sit as a third year pro, with a rating of 82.1, or just about league average, putting him in a position to thrive over the coming seasons on a run-first team.

Darren McFadden has been described as the most complete Raiders rookie since Marcus Allen, good start by any standards. While he has had some injury issues, McFadden has 113 rushes for 499 yards and four touchdowns, while often being underused later in the season with the emergence of Michael Bush and the play of Justin Fargas.

Coming into 2009 injury free, McFadden looked good rushing and receiving in mini-camp and should be in for a good year as the "home run hitter" of the running game (alongside Bush's goal line play and Fargas' intermediate game), with a revamped offensive line and the addition of veteran FB Lorenzo Neal who helped greats such as LaDainian Tomlinson amass 1,000 yard seasons.

The third pillar of what Tom Cable and Al Davis hope will help bring the Raiders back to prominence is Darrius Heyward-Bey. At 6'2'' and 210 pounds, Heyward-Bey has size to match his 4.23 40 time and has massive upside.

The Raiders hope his lack of production at Maryland was more down to the quality of the quarterback and the pro-style, run-first offense than bad hands, which he has been criticized for. After the first mini-camp, the evidence is inconclusive. He had a good two practices on Friday, followed by three straight drops on the Saturday morning before sitting out the rest of the camp as a precaution.

If the new No. 12 for Oakland can develop a rapport with JaMarcus Russell and be a reliable deep threat to stretch the defense for Zack Miller, Chaz Schilens, and Johnnie Lee Higgins, the future is bright for him indeed. The question is whether he will be more Randy Moss or Troy Williamson? Only time will tell.

In the end, as the 2009 season slowly approaches, JaMarcus Russell has been given every tool possible to forge a decent season and career if he develops a better work ethic and more consistency. McFadden seems a lock to have a productive career, building on his rookie season, so long as he is not overused and remains healthy.

Heyward-Bey's future is tied directly to JaMarcus Russell. Can he deal with the LSU product's bullet passes and sometimes spotty accuracy, or are his hands to fallible to succeed?

His ceiling is huge, but so is the potential for him to be a bust. Only time will tell. Going into 2009, with the bulk of the pressure on the stocked running game, Oakland has reason to be optimistic.

An average year for the passing game should guarantee an end to the 11-loss streak, while a good year could conceivably win a weak division; a bad one could spell the end of the rocket man.

It's all on you now, Mr. Russell.