It's popular around these parts to see the glass as half full. With the first preseason game a month from today (August 8 against the 49ers), there's more "ifs, ands, & buts" around the Raider Nation than in Conjunction Junction.
While there's room for optimism after a summer of spending, it's time to introduce a healthy dose of reality to the proceedings. The schedule and the roster don't suggest that these Raiders will find playoff pay-dirt in 2008.
With the NFL's ever-changing personnel landscape, five-year plans are a thing of the past. What you've done for me lately is as irrelevant as what will you do for me two years from now.
Rob Ryan's Defense
Ryan has shown the ability to shape a top-flight defense when given the right pieces to the puzzle. It's clear with the additions of Gabril Wilson and DeAngelo Hall the Raiders' secondary is one of the best in the league on paper.
Paired with Nnamdi Asomugha, Hall should form one half of the league's best man-to-man coverage team. Nickel back Stanford Routt showed glimpses of talent as a part-time starter last year, and Michael Huff, while still failing to live up to his draft hype and college performance, will be an upgrade over Stuart Schweigert.
The linebacking crew has speed to burn and gives the Raiders options for coverage and pass rushing. And the defensive line returns Derrick Burgess, hoping that last year's sack total (eight) was a one-year slide.
The Running Back Stable
It's hard to imagine that a year ago anyone would be excited about the return of Huggy Bear, but from the second half of the Miami game until his injury, Justin Fargas was one of the league's most efficient ball carriers in the league.
Add to that a healthy Michael Bush and the most exciting Raider back drafted since a guy named Marcus in Darren McFadden, and even the uncertain status of LaMont Jordan doesn't seem to matter much.
Often overlooked, the Raider fullback position is as solid as it's been since John Ritchie opened holes for Charlie Garner. Fresh legs shouldn't be an issue for this group.
Some fans will never forgive Al Davis for selecting Seabastian Janikowski in the first round nine years ago, but he rebounded from a dismal 2006 with a solid '07.
And don't look now, but SeaBass is in line to become the second leading scorer in Raider history sometime in 2008.
And no one has had more game practice at punting than Shane Lechler. All that practice paid off, with a gaudy 49.1 yards per kick average. It's one of the NFL's great mysteries that he's not a perennial Pro-Bowler.
What's Keeping Al Up At Night?
The Big Uglies Up Front
Tom Cable did an admirable job last season switching to a zone blocking format and getting the most from his guys. But no single unit relies more on continuity and familiarity than the O-line.
Cable will have at least two new faces in the starting group with stalwart Barry Sims switching area codes to the 415 and the undervalued Jerremy Newberry headed south to San Diego.
It's clear that this line will control the success of the Raider offense. With an inexperienced quarterback, the Raiders will rely heavily on those talented running backs and keeping Russell upright.
And Speaking of Upright...
JaMarcus Russell can throw a football 60 yards on his knees. He's built like a defensive lineman. He can throw a football through a brick wall.
He's also thrown 66 passes in his NFL career, struggled with learning a stripped down playbook last season, and enters this year as The Man for a team in desperate need of leadership. While he may end up as great as his clippings, the jury's out. The Raiders better hope the verdict is a good one!
Who's Catching That Thing?
Drew Carter, Javon Walker, and Ronald Curry head into the season as the first three guys on the depth chart. While no one questions the potential talent, this is a suspect group at best.
Walker and Curry have a long history of leg injuries. Carter had a breakout season (of sorts) last year, but has no real legacy of success. The best options for JaMarcus will probably be tight end Zach Miller and his running backs led by McFadden.
There are those that believe that with a young quarterback, screens, flairs and five-yard curls may be the best patterns anyway, but consider this—how many 15-play drives can you expect Russell to run in year two?
Who's Stopping The Run?
With Warren Sapp taking his mouth to the networks, the Raiders will rely on a series of gambles up the middle, including the $55-million man, Tommy Kelly. Things are so uncertain that you can look for the Raiders to bring back an old face for training camp in either Sam Adams or Grady Jackson.
Gerard Warren is a potential cap hit but remains a talent tease. Greg Spires and Kalimba Edwards, both signed this offseason, have the potential to help from the end spot, particularly Spires.
There are as many question marks as there are answers heading in to camp. While the potential is there, the performance is unproven. With so many new parts to these engines it's hard to imagine there won't be some rough road ahead.
Next week we'll take a look at the season game-by-game and give our first prediction on the season's performance.
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