Oakland Raiders' Defense in '09: Position Battles Abound
Changes are in store for the 2009 Raiders defense. Virtually every defensive area is in flux and few players are a lock to start at a particular position. Captain Kirk Morrison could be on the move and there are four safeties vying for the two starting spots.
There is also a defensive line that hasn't performed well in the past few seasons. If John Marshall wants to change it up, there could potentially be a few new starters on the defensive line as well. There have been Derrick Burgess trade rumors swirling and his mystery illness during mandatory mini-camp is troubling.
The only position that seems set is cornerback. Nnamdi Asomugha's public relations campaign last season took him from As-Oh-Mooga to a household name, even though half of the play-by-play announcers still can't pronounce Aso-MU-Wah.
In addition to Asomugha, Deion Sanders' apprentice Chris Johnson took over the starting role and proved he was the real deal for the first time at age 28.
The key battles going into camp are free and strong safety, middle and SAM linebacker, 4-3 nose tackle and right and left defensive end.
Sixth overall pick Michael Huff must prove he isn't a bust this season, because the label has already been applied. Luckily for him he might have a chance to prove people wrong.
His teammates rave about him. Asomugha thinks he will have a breakout year this year. Last season, Stanford Routt said that Huff was going to be the breakout player. Hopefully their confidence in Huff is not misplaced.
Another possibility is Hiram Eugene. He has filled in admirably for Huff over the past few seasons. His work ethic has been mentioned by coaches and Tom Cable made it a point to mention Eugene when he was talking about his team leaders. Leaders don't typically sit on the bench.
NFL Sophomore Tyvon Branch is another candidate. This special teams star in the making might also be able to wrestle this position away from Huff and Eugene. If rookie Mike Mitchell proves he can start right away, Branch could slide over and start at free safety.
This is an interesting case study in position battles. Hard-working 2006 undrafted free agent Eugene vs. 2006 sixth overall pick Huff vs. 2008 fourth-round pick Branch. Two very different veterans versus a rising youngster should make for a lively camp battle.
Take Huff out of the equation at strong safety. The coaching staff is bent on keeping him at free safety. Both Eugene and Branch apply for the job at strong safety along with surprise second round pick Mitchell.
Mitchell has a chip on his shoulder, but will he be able to make reads in the NFL without making too many mistakes? Count on the Raiders to give him every opportunity to win the job, but don't be surprised if he doesn't.
The strong safety battle is more about the youngsters. If for some reason neither develop Eugene could step in a fill the void. The potential sleeper is free agent pickup Keith Davis.
The linebacker situation could quickly turn into the oddest battle on the team. Serviceable SAM linebacker Ricky Brown has moved to middle linebacker behind starter Kirk Morrison.
Jon Alson has taken most of the first team reps at SAM linebacker with Slade Norris playing second fiddle. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to re-sign Ricky Brown for him to play backup middle linebacker.
I expect one of Morrison or Brown to slide to SAM linebacker by training camp. If Brown is effective at middle linebacker, Morrison could thrive at the SAM spot. Brown would still be the player to leave the field when the Raiders go with a nickel package.
Expect Norris to get plenty of snaps at linebacker during camp. Lead-footed middle linebacker Frantz Joseph as also a wild card.
Overall this is relatively young group. If they can shed tackles and the defensive line can free them up to make plays this group could be special.
Unfortunately there aren't many options at the Three-Technique spot. Tommy Kelly is the starter and there really isn't anyone behind him to push him to be better. Ryan Boschetti is the clear backup unless there are huge surprise in store.
However, the nose tackle continues to be up in the air. Gerrard Warren was the starter last season and was another one of the players Tom Cable has called a leader. Sands has never reached the potential many people believe he has.
Sands has dropped a significant amount of extra weight this offseason and hopefully that means he will regain the explosiveness he seemed to have in 2006. The competition should drive both lineman to be better. Better tackle play will be pivotal in improving the 31st ranked rush defense.
There is also an interesting battle brewing at defensive end. Trevor Scott looks primed to get more snaps and Burgess appears to be on an island by himself. Jay Richardson, Greyson Gunheim and rookies Stryker Sulak and Matt Shaughnessy will also battle for time.
The early favorites appear to be Burgess, Scott, Richardson, and Sulak. Of course, this could change dramatically should Burgess be traded.
Everyone seems to expect Scott to pick up more snaps, even potentially stealing them from Burgess. It will be interesting to see if Scott's flashes in 2008 will translate to better production and more playing time in 2009.
The 2009 Raiders defense has the potential to look a lot different than the 2008 Raiders defense. It also has the potential to look very much the same as the 2008 defense.
This is the type of paradox you might only find in Oakland. Typically teams try to hold over a good defense or significantly change a bad one, but this is the Raiders, since when have they ever done anything typical?
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