July is around the corner and training camp is looming in the summer weeks to come. For most football fans this time of year is spent fantasizing about their teams fortune in the upcoming season and wondering if this could be the year it all comes together. Most rabid fans develop unrealistic predictions and expectations jaded by the love for their respective organizations. For Raiders fans, this rings especially true. Take one of the most loyal and passionate fan bases in the National Football League and couple it with 6 consecutive losing seasons and it becomes easy to see why Raiders fans are ready for a new season to begin. The following 6 seasons started with high hopes and ended in dismal reality, yet for some reason there is a quiet confidence brewing in the Oakland O.T.A.'s and among the Raider faithful.
Oakland has had a very uncharacteristically quiet off season, highlighted by several free agent signings that have attracted little if any attention. Let’s take a look at each player and the impact that they will likely have.
Khalif Barnes, Erik Pears and Samson Satele have been added to strengthen an offensive line that was much improved in 2008. The release of Kwame Harris alone, will strengthen the play of the Oakland offensive line. When Harris wasn't being beat by defensive ends he was consistently jumping off-sides and single handedly killing the Raiders drives into opponents territory. Mario Henderson made the move to left tackle late in the season and filled in quite nicely, not allowing any sacks after filling in for Harris. Khalif Barnes was acquired and signed to a one year deal after leaving Jacksonville where he was an above average starter at left tackle. He has been working out on the right side during OTA's but is expected to challenge Mario Henderson for the starting left tackle position and should be a major upgrade on either side. Erik Pears also joined the Raiders offensive line. At 6'8" and 305 lbs Pears is a monster and an extremely versatile player. Pears started 16 games at right tackle for the Broncos in 2007 before losing his starting job to a non-football related illness in 2008. He is an above average pass blocker and an excellent "road grade" run blocker.
Often injured Jake Grove was not re-signed and ended up making his way to Miami where hopes are high that he can remain healthy. Enter Samson Satele, a young center acquired by the Raiders via trade from the Miami Dolphins. Satele is a young player who started and earned praise during his rookie campaign only to lose his job in 2008 after struggling against the larger defensive tackles in the AFC East. Oakland's zone blocking scheme should fit Satele's skill sets perfectly and time is on the Raider's side as Satele is still young and coachable. Overall this unit got a major face lift and barring major injuries should be one of the league’s most improved units.
Darius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy were drafted to add explosiveness to a passing attack that completely lacked a deep threat. Louis Murphy has been nothing short of a pleasant surprise and has been impressing the Raider's coaching staff since his arrival at the first mini-camp of the year. Darius Heyward-Bey has been nagged by a hamstring injury but has shown the drive and work ethic to be a big time player in the National Football League. Heyward-Bey has been widely criticized for dropping too many balls in college, yet careful examination of statistical evidence will show that he dropped no more than any other collegiate wide receiver. The fact the Darius Heyward-Bey played in a pro-style offense and has been labeled a quick learner with above average football intelligence should let the Raider faithful sleep easier at night. In a league that is dominated by physical specimens, Heyward-Bey is exactly that. With a 37.5" vertical jump and 4.2 speed, Heyward-Bey possesses the skill sets to create separation from today's elite cornerback. Add Chaz Shillens and Johnnie Lee Higgins, both of which broke out in the last 6 games of the season, you suddenly have a viable and underestimated receiving corps.
Zach Miller has very quietly become one of the best pass catching tight-ends in the league. He is an excellent run blocker and clearly Jamarcus Russell’s favorite target. His sneaky speed and great hands should land him his first Pro-Bowl Appearance in 2009.
Jamarcus Russell finished the final 7 games of the season with a quarterback rating of over 90 and left everyone in the league curious to see if he will ever develop into the player many of his supporters believe he is capable of becoming. Russell has rare physical gifts but whether or not he is ready to mature into becoming a professional quarterback has yet to be seen. Russell has suffered from the loss of 2 close mentors this offseason and will likely be looking to show the world he belongs in the National Football League. Russell finished camp in epic fashion, lighting up the red-zone drills with 7 consecutive touchdown strikes. Coach Cable has publicly asked for Jamarcus to emerge as a leader and he obliged by inviting all of the Raiders wide receivers to private workouts in order to develop chemistry in the passing game.
The addition of quarterback's coach Paul Hackett should help the development of Russell's mental game. Most importantly Russell needs to spend time in the film room so that he can read defenses and make his progressions become second nature and allow him to use the football instinct he displayed regularly as a star at LSU. All in all, there are several signs that Russell is headed in the right direction.
The Raiders have arguably the most dynamic stable of running backs in the National Football League. Justin Fargas has proved to be a gritty "head down" running back who runs with little or no regard for his physical well being. As a result he is often injured and expected to bear less of the load this year as Michael Bush and speedster Darren McFadden take the majority of the carries. McFadden is in his second year removed as college football's best running back, and after being hampered by turf toe on both feet during his rookie campaign is poised to explode onto the scene in 2009. Bush was also electric in 2008 rushing for 177 yards and 2 touchdowns against a tough Tampa Bay Buccaneer defense. McFadden will be featured in the passing game, similar to how Brian Westbrook is used in Philadelphia and will undoubtedly create matchup problems and nightmares for defensive coordinators.
The addition of veteran FB Lorenzo Neal will definitely open some more holes for this exciting trio. The Raiders ran on whoever they wanted in 2008 and a much improved offensive line and passing game should catapult Oakland to the upper echelon of rushing teams in the league.
The Raiders defense boasts some of the best young linebackers in the league in Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison. Thomas Howard has incredible speed and has quickly become one of the finest pass coverage linebackers in the AFC. Kirk Morrison is a hardnosed defender with an unbelievable knack for finding the play despite being eaten up by offensive lineman who have taken advantage of the Raiders weak play from the defensive tackle position. This position is one of the only legitimate concerns for a Raiders defense that consistently under performed under former Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. Tommy Kelly was signed to a huge contract coming off an ACL surgery and thus far, has not performed. He has, however agreed to restructure his contract and will be completely healed and confident of his surgically repaired knee.
Defensive End is a bright spot for this young team. Trevor Scott out of the University of Buffalo played very well as a rookie and is said to be on the verge of cracking the starting lineup along with incumbent Jay Richardson. Greg Ellis was brought in as a veteran presence and insurance policy for the apparent possibility of the departure of Derrick Burgess. Burgess has yet to show up to any team activity and is rumored to be on his way out in Oakland. He is however in a contract year and if he isn't moved he will certainly be playing hard for his next contract and provide a consistent pass rush opposite of Greg Ellis and the other young , promising defensive ends that will be rotating in.
The Cornerback position is one of strength for the Raiders. Nnamdi Asomugha is widely regarded as the league's best shut-down corner and is the cornerstone of the Raiders defense. Chris Johnson did a beautiful job filling in for Deangelo Hall last year and is anxious to show it wasn't a fluke in 2009.
Safety is the other major area of concern for the Raiders organization. Michael Huff has never turned into the player the Raiders had hoped he would become. His inability to read plays and react in a timely fashion has reportedly been on display once again in OTA's this spring and will likely lead to him being cut in camp this summer. This is probably best for both parties. Maybe what Huff needs a new start, but I think it is becoming clear, he doesn't fit into the long term plans in Oakland. Mike Mitchell, whom the Raiders have been mocked for drafting so high, is an extraordinary physical talent. Mitchell will be expected to make the jump from Ohio University to the starting lineup and be a major contributor to a run defense desperately seeking a strong-safety with stopping power. Hiram Eugene will continue to develop and contribute at the other safety position with Tyvon Branch who was injured much of 2008 attempting to push and break the starting line-up.
The Raiders have one of the best Special Teams units in the league. Justin Miller and Johnnie Lee Higgins have emerged as 2 of the best if not the best kick returners in the game today. Shane Lechler is the best punter in the league and continually lengthens the field for the Raider's defense. Sebastian Janikowski is the Raiders all time leading scorer, and while inconsistent at times, still has one of the most powerful legs in the NFL.
Al Davis has continued to do things his way while making subtle, unnoticed changes to his ownership style. Al still drafted the fastest players on the board regardless of where anyone had them ranked. Unlike previous years, Davis abandoned courting the big name, bad attitude free agent. He took care of franchise players such as Asomugha and Shane Lechler and added the veteran leadership the team needed. Most importantly Al Davis got rid of every player that was part of the negativity looming in Oakland and rewarded the man who was at the helm during the transition with his first contract as a head coach in the National Football League.
There are several other "X-Factors". Javon Walker, who spent almost all of 2008 injured had another knee surgery this off season and failed to report it to the Raiders front office. At this point it is not clear if he will be able to recover and return to the productive pro-bowl receiver he once was. He has however, been spending extra time with rookies Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey which is refreshing news. Veterans taking time to show young players the ropes is another indication that the players left in Oakland are ready to win and believe in Coach Cable and the direction of this organization.
The Autumn Wind is changing and once again, the bad boys of the NFL seem to be headed in the right direction. It is quiet in Oakland and amongst the Raider Nation, and it should be an uncomfortable silence for the foes of the National Football Leagues most storied and detested franchises.