Oakland Raiders: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of 2014 Training Camp
For a team that went through as much turnover as the Oakland Raiders did this offseason, the first week of camp is especially important. This was the first opportunity for the coaches to see how close—or how far—the team is to competing on a weekly basis.
After the first week, the Oakland coaches should be pleasantly surprised and encouraged by how the team has played.
It's still early, and there is still a lot for the players to prove, but so far, the signs have been encouraging. Veterans have lived up to expectations, and several unheralded players have stepped up and made strong cases to be included in the final 53-man roster.
Of course, training camp hasn't been perfect. Some players facing high expectations have either fallen to injuries or have simply not performed to the level expected, leaving the team with major questions to answer as training camp continues.
Here are six things we've learned about this Oakland team after the first week of training camp.
Schaub's Mojo Is Just Fine
Entering training camp, one of the biggest questions for the Raiders was which version of Matt Schaub they would get. Would it be the steady, reliable passer he'd been throughout his career, or would it be the pick-six machine who was eventually benched in favor of an undrafted rookie in 2013?
After the first week of camp, Schaub has left no doubt as to who is at the top of the quarterback depth chart.
CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair reports that "Schaub’s accuracy has been evident during an excellent start to camp." Schaub has brought to Oakland exactly what the team needed at quarterback: accuracy and reliability.
Just as important, Schaub has shown a confidence that permeates throughout the entire offense.
NFL.com's Marc Sessler notes that when Antonio Smith, a teammate of Schaub's with the Houston Texans in 2013, was asked about the quarterback's confidence, he said, "Schaubby's getting his mojo back." Smith added: "You would be surprised just how much your mindset is important in this league."
At the start of camp, there were legitimate concerns about Schaub and whether the disastrous year he had last season would have lasting effects on his confidence. The answer has been a resounding no. When Schaub was asked about Smith's "mojo" comment, his response was simple: "You know, I've never lost it."
Schaub has firmly established himself as the starting quarterback of this team with his performance. As long as he keeps this up, the Raiders offense will be a major surprise to the rest of the NFL once the regular season begins.
Hayden Still an Unknown Quantity
After a rookie campaign marred by a preseason surgery that cost him much of the offseason and a sports hernia injury that ended his season after only eight games, 2014 was supposed to be DJ Hayden's breakout year.
Instead, the second-year cornerback finds himself in the exact same position: injured and unsure when he'll be able to return.
Perhaps more disconcerting than the injury itself is that Hayden's recovery has been a slow one. After the first week of camp, Hayden remains on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), and there still isn't a time frame for his return.
CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair notes that one of head coach Dennis Allen's biggest concerns is the fact that Hayden simply isn't getting in enough reps. It was a problem last year, and it's now a problem this season as well.
This is an especially major setback for Hayden and the Raiders because he was slated to start at cornerback this season. The team was ready to trust him with the responsibility, and he was going to be given every opportunity to establish himself at the position.
That was supposed to happen this year, but after the first week of camp, the team is no closer to knowing whether or not Hayden is capable of living up to the expectations of being a first-round pick.
Hayden is now in his second year, and this training camp was his opportunity to show how much he improved since last season. Even if he didn't perform well, the team would at least know what it has to work with in him.
For now, Oakland is still left with plenty of questions, but no answers.
Cornerback Depth Deeper Than Expected
While Hayden has been a non-factor this offseason, the other cornerbacks on the roster have been one of the most unexpected and encouraging surprises of training camp.
Hayden was expected to start this season alongside Tarell Brown. His absence threw the entire depth chart off, and Oakland was unsure exactly how to most effectively shuffle players around to make up for the loss.
The Raiders have discovered that Hayden's absence might not be all that big of a loss.
Chimdi Chekwa has been one of the biggest surprises in camp. Now entering his fourth season, he was one of the cornerbacks given extra reps because of Hayden's absence, and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity.
ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez reports that Chekwa has performed so well that he's currently the favorite to start at cornerback opposite Brown. He's been effective in practice, and Gutierrez notes that Chekwa's confidence seems to grow with every play.
Another cornerback making a great impression is rookie seventh-round pick TJ Carrie. Originally selected for his ability as a kick returner, Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien notes that Carrie has shown surprising maturity, and his performance on the field has earned him significant reps.
Carlos Rogers has looked out of shape according to SFBay's Jason Leskiw, a troubling sign from a veteran who's expected to be one of the leaders of the unit. Fortunately, Chekwa and Carrie, along with rookie fourth-rounder Keith McGill and unheralded Neiko Thorpe, have all performed well, further alleviating the worries regarding depth at cornerback.
Many, including myself, saw the cornerback position as Oakland's biggest weakness heading into camp, especially given Hayden's injury. After the first week, it's looking more and more like the Raiders have the depth to be effective at the position.
Wisniewski Crucial to Oakland's Success
Perhaps no unit on the Oakland roster has been as affected by all of the additions made this offseason as the offensive line, a five-man unit that could see as many as four new starters in 2014.
This would be a challenge at any position, but it's especially so for the offensive line, a unit that needs to be more than the sum of its parts to be effective. It may be filled with talented players, but that doesn't matter if they aren't able to function as a unit.
Fortunately for Oakland, the one constant remains center Stefen Wisniewski. This year's offensive line bears little resemblance to the 2013 version, but the Raiders are fortunate that the unit's leader remains the same.
As NBC Bay Area's Doug Williams notes, Wisniewski's biggest role this season could be that of unifier. As the players around him continue to be shuffled, Oakland is going to count on Wisniewski to be the steadying presence of the unit.
Thus far, Wisniewski has been able to fast-forward the unit's progress toward cohesiveness.
It's always more difficult to assess the performance of an offensive line because we only hear about it when it plays poorly, such as when too many sacks are given up, the quarterback doesn't have enough time to throw or the running game is underperforming.
There are no glamour plays like interceptions or flashy catches down the sideline to make it look good.
The reality is that when an offensive line is playing well, you don't hear about it at all, and this is what's happened so far.
Credit for this goes to Wisniewski. Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien writes that no loss to the offensive line would be as damaging as that of Wisniewski. As long as he stays healthy, the unit will continue to be as effective as it has been in camp.
Wisniewski's performance is the best barometer for the performance of the offensive line as a whole. Thanks to his leadership, the unit has been effective, and this will make it easier for the offense to perform well in all other areas.
This means that Wisniewski's performance will affect the performance of the entire offense. The challenge of leading an entirely rebuilt unit might be daunting, but he's proven up to the task.
Starting Running Back Still Unsettled, and That's a Good Thing
The Raiders had a ton of potential at running back heading into camp. Unfortunately, they had just as many questions.
While the responsibilities at the position are expected to be shared pretty evenly between Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, both have dealt with injuries, and it remained to be seen how they would look once training camp rolled around.
So far, both have looked extremely good.
CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair reports that Jones-Drew showed up to camp looking lean, and offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been extremely impressed with his powerful running: "He can get lost at the line of scrimmage, and when they [the defense] do see him and if they try and stick an arm out, he’ll rip it off. He’s got that kind of power."
McFadden has also looked good, but that's never been his problem. The issue has always been his inability to stay on the field, and the Raiders have made specific changes to try to address this.
The Oakland Tribune's Jerry McDonald tweeted that the "Raiders have changed up Darren McFadden's weight room routine to help keep him on field." Oakland is also looking to have McFadden run less between the tackles in an effort to decrease the hits and increase his time on the field.
Monday Morning Quarterback's Robert Klemko notes that McFadden is the early favorite to start at running back, but he leads the competition by the slightest of margins. In reality, the position remains up for grabs, and it won't be a surprise to see either player named the starter.
The issue remains unsettled after the first week of camp, but this isn't because McFadden and Jones-Drew haven't played well. The problem is actually that the Raiders have two very strong candidates, but they can only start one.
That's a good problem to have.
Veterans Living Up to Expectations
The Raiders added several veterans this offseason. The list includes players like Justin Tuck, Matt Schaub, Antonio Smith, Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley and Tarell Brown. Each one of these players is expected to play a major role for Oakland in 2014.
However, along with the veteran leadership and proven performance that these players bring, the team also got older, and training camp would be crucial to determine whether or not these players still had something left in the tank.
On offense, Jones-Drew arrived to camp in great shape and has shown impressive power, and Schaub has shown great poise and leadership on the way to claiming the starting quarterback position.
Defensively, Brown has established himself as a starter at cornerback, and CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair notes that Woodley has greatly benefited from the position switch in Oakland. During his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Now, he's playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense, a position better suited to his size and skill set.
Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien reports that Tuck has been impressive rushing the passer. As perhaps the biggest addition to the defense, Tuck faced even more pressure to perform well than the other veterans. The Raiders have been pleased to see that he's the player they were hoping for.
After the first week of training camp, the veterans have largely met the lofty expectations that were waiting for them when they arrived in Oakland. The question remains as to whether they'll be able to hold up physically over the course of the entire season, but that won't be known until the season actually plays out.
For now, what is known is that the veterans have provided exactly what the Raiders needed: great work ethic, leadership and performance.