Battling for Position in Oakland

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Battling for Position in Oakland
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Heading into the 2009 season there are several question marks for the Oakland Raiders. With a completely revamped coaching staff and an intriguing draft class set to take the field in the fall, the real question is who is going to make the impact to elevate this team to the next level.

With an exciting core of young talent on the roster there is plenty of competition at many key positions of concern. The following is an overview of the crucial position battles heading into training camp.


Defensive End

One area the Raiders must improve upon is their defensive line play. Not only do they need to apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it is crucial that they find a way to shut down the run after finishing 31st in that category last season.

Who is in the running: Derrick Burgess, Jason Richardson, Trevor Scott, Greyson Gunheim, Matt Shaughnessy, Derrick Gray

My Take: It is unlikely that anyone will unseat incumbent starters Burgess and Richardson but Oakland needs a young player to step up and make an impact from the bench at this position.

Burgess is in the final year of his contract. His sack numbers have decreased every year since becoming a Raider, though he started with back to aback pro bowl performances. Expect to see his sack total improve this season as he fights for what is likely his last chance at a big contract. Burgess is a liability against the run and injury prone.

Richardson is a force against the run but the knock on him is his inability to get to the quarterback. Do not expect anyone to step into his position because Oakland needs him for their rush defense.

If Trevor Scott repeats his performance from last year his future will be bright. He led the team with five sacks. He needs to take advantage of his time on the field in pass rushing situations but he no longer is looked at as a pure pass rush specialist.

Reports say that he has bulked up adding about 20 pounds to his frame bumping him up to a weight were can be effective against the run. This bodes very well for his chances to succeed Burgess as the starter, possibly this season.

The Raiders recently drafted three players who played at defensive end in college however it is likely that two of them will be converted to linebacker. Matt Shaugnessy is an intriguing prospect out of Wisconsin.

He has good size at 6-5 270 but most scouting reports state that he was not an explosive player in college. The Raiders would settle for him making an impact as a run stopper.

Greyson Gunheim showed flashes of his pass rushing ability at the end of last season. If he continues to improve he can be a factor somewhere down the line but do not expect him to start this year. Derrick Gray will have to fight to make the roster.


Wide Receiver

It has been well documented that Oakland’s leading receiver had an embarrassing 22 catches last season. Some may attribute that stat total to veteran players like Javon Walker and Ronald Curry being completely ineffective as the young playmakers like Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins only got their shot towards the end of the season.

Regardless of what their issues were last season Oakland needs a WR to step up and establish themselves as a reliable number one target for JaMarcus Russell and a passing offense that ranked last in the league.

Who is in the running: Javon Walker, Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Arman Shields, Todd Watkins, Shawn Bayes, Will Franklin, Samie Parker, Nick Miller, Jonathan Holland

My Take: With 12 receivers currently on the roster expect Oakland to keep half of them on the roster and a couple will likely land on the practice squad.

The theme for the receiving core is definitely speed. More than half of them run a sub 4.4 40 yard dash. Their number one draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey scorched the field in route to running the combine’s fastest time of 4.30.

DHB is a beast of an athlete at 6-2 210. He possesses not only great speed but also an excellent jumping ability and experience running pro style routes. On top of that he is a receiver who catches the ball with his hands extended and not with his body.

Heyward-Bey was thrown into the mix as the number one receiver the very first mini camp, lining up against All Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. This is a strong indication that he will be given every opportunity to start as the number one or number WR in the offense from day one.

Preliminary reports from OTAs indicate the front runner to be the number one WR is Chaz Schilens. Apparently he has been catching everything thrown his way and most reports say he is clearly outshining the other receivers.

Standing at 6-4 225 Schilens has the ideal size for a number one receiver. He also has burner speed to go with his size, he ran a 4.38. He has no problem going for every ball and is not afraid to go across the middle of the field. He displayed his abilities down the stretch last season with touchdown catches in back to back games to close out the season.

Another receiver who has reportedly been catching everything thrown his way in OTAs is Johnnie Lee Higgins. Higgins was easily the most explosive weapon last season and is the ideal fit to play out of the slot. Another receiver with burner speed, he ran a 4.33 at his combine.

He led the team with seven touchdowns last season with three coming off of punt returns. That is a primary reason Higgins should play slot and not be the number one or two in the offense. They should not risk limiting his impact as a returner by overusing and tiring him on offense.

The x factor of the receiver corps is Javon Walker who restructured his ridiculous contract to stay with the team earlier in the offseason. He also had surgery and decided not to tell anyone from the organization about it until afterwards. After the surgery Walker claims to finally be healthy and says he played at 60% last season.

If Walker can return to his pro bowl form of three years ago then he will shake up the depth chart. He has an uphill battle, however, as he is still recovering from his surprise surgery and if he is not ready for camp there will be issues. If he is ready for camp he will really has to impress to earn his playing time and keep one of the young guys on the bench.

Al Davis professed the need to get the young receivers, Higgins and Schilens, more involved in the offense during the press conference when he removed Cable’s interim tag. If Walker is going to beat those guys out then it will be an indication that he is back to his old form. If not then you can consider his signing to be a major bust for the franchise.

Rookie Louis Murphy was a steal in the fourth round and stands a chance to make an impact if he sees the field, especially if Walker fails to resurrect his career. He is big, fast, and has decent hands. He ran some pro style routes at Florida where he was the number one receiver but was overshadowed by Percy Harvin.

Shields, Watkins, Bayes, Franklin, Parker, Miller, and Holland will all battle it out for the last available roster spot at WR.


Strong side Linebacker

Sam linebacker has been a position of concern for years in Oakland. They need a player to step up and fill the role in order to hold their ground and be a presence against the run. If the Raiders cannot stop the run it will be another miserable year.

Who is in the running: Ricky Brown, Jon Alston, Slade Norris, Kirk Morrison

My Take: This battle is wide open and whoever impresses in training camp and preseason will win the job. Ricky Brown is the returning starter but by no means is guaranteed the job. Brown is a competitor but a bit undersized for the position at 6-2 235.

He is a fundamental tackler but due to his small size he can get taken out of a lot of plays. He is also an injury concern as he only played in seven games last season. It is interesting to note that Brown has been playing in the middle behind Morrison with the second string during OTAs.

He was told by Cable that the move was made because they already know what he is capable of on the outside.

Jon Alston is the man who has been playing on the strong side with the first team and has been doing quite well in the position. He has been getting into the backfield for potential sacks and grabbed at least one interception. One problem with Alston is that he is even smaller than Brown but a big upside is his terrific speed.

In an ideal world the rookie Slade Norris will win the competition. He has the size, 6-3 245, that you want on the strong side and some speed to go with it. A major obstacle is the fact that he is being converted from defensive end to linebacker.

The good news is that he had experience in college at Sam linebacker. More good news is his ability to penetrate. He recorded 19 sacks over the last two seasons at Oregon State. He has good versatility as he even saw time at safety when he first arrived at Oregon State. I assume the Raiders are hoping Norris can win the job this summer.

The reason I listed Kirk Morrison as a candidate at the position is because of the fact the Brown has been playing in the middle during OTAs.

I did not want to ignore the outside possibility that Brown could start in the middle and they could shift Morrison outside. I find this scenario highly unlikely though. If rookie Frantz Joseph steps up then it is more of a possibility.


Strong Safety

The Raiders have been looking for a suitable strong safety since Rod Woodson left town. They drafted Derrick Gibson, who was an absolute bust, and later picked Michael Huff at No. 7 overall. Huff was supposed to be a playmaker but has not had the desired impact. He was moved to free safety to replace the anemic Stuart Schweigert.

The Raiders need to find the combination of players in the defensive backfield to restore the fear that once dominated the minds of opposing receivers.

Who is in the running: Tyvon Branch, Mike Mitchell

My Take: Finally there is some hope and excitement for the strong safety position. The Raiders drafted speedster Tyvon Branch in the fourth round last year and speedster Mike Mitchell with their second round selection in this year’s draft. Both players are intriguing and very similar in their styles of play.

Tyvon Branch more than impressed as a gunner last season on special teams. His speed is excellent, the best among defensive backs at the combine last year. He also packs a punch with his tremendous hits. He played corner in college at UConn and the Raiders converted him to safety.

His playing time was limited thanks to a broken hand. He played with a cast on for part of the season and was able to record an interception while wearing it. Branch has excellent ball skills and should be considered the front runner for the position at this point in the summer, but I wouldn’t pencil him in to start just yet.

Mike Mitchell was drafted in the second round for a reason. He has great size at 6-1 220 and recorded an excellent 40 time for his size at his pro day, 4.43. Mitchell’s greatest asset is his ferocious hitting ability. According to Mitchell, he has knocked three players out cold on the field in his career thus far.

If both young hitmen impress enough during camp and preseason it is not a stretch to imagine one of them being moved to free safety so they can both start. Branch would likely be the one to make the transition because his legs are a little faster and Mitchell hits quite a bit harder.

If this scenario were to come to fruition the Raiders would have two of the fastest and hardest hitting safeties in the league starting in their secondary. The great Raiders teams of the past were well known for their smash mouth take-no-prisoner mentality in their secondary. Branch and Mitchell have a chance to restore that mentality.


Left Offensive Tackle

Many of the Raiders woes on offense last season can be attributed to poor offensive line play. Specifically the play at offensive tackle, primarily that of the embarrassing Kwame Harris. The play of the offensive line will be key to the success of JaMarcus Russell this season. Russell’s play will determine where the ceiling for this team is.

Who is in the running: Mario Henderson, Khalif Barnes

My take: Mario Henderson played excellently down the stretch. A player who was a big question mark going into the last season who really stepped up when he got his chance. When Tom Cable finally pulled Harris from the position Henderson stepped in and played like he should have been there the whole time.

In the final weeks of the season he shut down three of the leagues premier defensive end, including one who is considered by some to be the very best in the league. He held Richard Seymour, Mario Williams, and Gaines Adams in check as none of the three was able to beat the young tackle Henderson for a sack.

At this point the left tackle position is Henderson’s to lose. If he continues to play how he did down the stretch last year there is no reason to assume he won’t keep the job.

His biggest competition is Khalif Barnes who was acquired via free agency. Barnes was a four year starter for Jacksonville prior to his arrival. He struggled last season but he had very little help on an injury plagued offensive line.

Prior to last season he played very well as the anchor of the Jags line. He even helped the team accomplish a franchise record for rushing yards in 2006. He has never been considered a liability in pass protection.

One of his strengths is his toughness. In 2005 he played the entire second half of a Wild Card game against New England with a broken leg.

If Barnes cannot beat out Henderson he has to establish himself at the right tackle position. The Raiders need an upgrade over Cornell Green who has never been impressive. If Barnes wins the job then Henderson must adjust to the right side and be a force.

The Raider potentially have the set of bookend tackles they need to succeed but if Barnes flames out like Kwame did last season then Oakland will likely be in for another long year.

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