Oakland’s youth movement is at a crossroads this year. It’s time for the young team to step in and establish itself as a major player in the AFC West division. Nobody is asking for championships as of yet, but it is crucial that the young Raiders prove to themselves and their ownership that they are on the right path this upcoming season.
It is a youth movement that started soon after the Super Bowl defeat in 2002. Soon after the loss, veterans like Rich Gannon, Rod Woodson, Tim Brown, Eric Allen, Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski, and many others slowly dwindled away into the light of their retirement.
Oakland soon took steps towards ushering in a new era of Raider football. Seven consecutive 11 or more loss seasons have helped the Raiders obtain very good draft positioning for some time now.
Perhaps head coach Tom Cable put it best when he said the “weeding out” process is close to finished on his roster. “We kind of go to work for a common theme now, which is to succeed. And I don’t think you can do that if you have a bunch of knuckleheads. I feel good about our team. What I want to do is improve our team.”
Now it’s time for a new group of Raider All-Stars to develop. Last year safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff, tight end Zach Miller, cornerback Chris Johnson, and converted linebacker Trevor Scott stepped up in a big way for Oakland.
Let’s take a look at the guys whose stcok is on the rise this year. I’ll start from the least obvious and work down to the guy who most deserves a shot at the starting gig.
· Desmond Bryant was an undrafted rookie free agent defensive tackle from Harvard last year. As soon as Raiders fans saw him in action, they quickly learned his name. Despite his smallish girth, Bryant showed on several occasions last season that he is highly capable of playing against the double team next to Tommy Kelly.
Bryant impressed the coaching staff enough that they were willing to part ways with the starter last year, Gerard Warren. Despite a significant difference in opportunities with the starting team compared to Warren, Bryant ended up only three tackles shy of Warren’s total tackle tally.
In spite of his impressive rookie numbers, Bryant continues to be overlooked by sources outside the organization. However, head coach Tom Cable knows exactly who he is and the fact that he is already in Alameda working with new defensive line coach Mike Waufle at the Raiders headquarters bodes well for the Raiders and Bryant going into 2010.
· Wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins has been impressive when he gets the opportunity to start at wide out for the Raiders. I always thought Higgins would be an outstanding slot receiver, the likes of a Wes Welker type, only much faster in straight line speed.
But after watching Higgins perform, it is clear that he either feels more comfortable on the outside, or he is just plain better suited to play the outside. If you’ve followed Higgins career as a Raider, you may know that he does not like contact. He once said that’s why he scores so many touchdowns on returns; so he can avoid contact.
Higgins started the final five games of 2009 in place of injured Darrius Heyward-Bey, and totaled 13 catches for 214 yards. He also started the final three games of 2008, racking up 12 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns in those games. Higgins personality could help the struggling Oakland Offense in the huddle as well.
· Oakland Raiders franchise quarterback JaMarcus Russell struggled early and often during his time as Oakland’s starting quarterback in 2009. Bruce Gradkowski, on the other hand, really established himself as a guy who fans could hold out hope for in 2010.
Bruce’s QB rating was well over 30 points higher than the 2007 first round pick. The former Toledo Rocket also threw six touchdowns and one interception in his four starts compared to Russell’s two touchdown tosses and nine interceptions in nine starts.
Gradkowski is also currently working out with his teammates prior to the scheduled off-season workouts which begin on Monday, March 15th. JaMarcus Russell is either receiving treatment for lethargy, or getting in shape while being trained by Olympic trainers in Arizona. It’s unclear at present which story about Russell is actually the truth.
· With the departure of veteran Greg Ellis, who spent a year on the Raiders roster as a defensive end and led the team in sacks with seven, Matt Shaughnessy is expected to step up and is profiled this week on Raiders.com series “Players on the Rise.”
Shaughnessy is a second year end who did a really good job filling in for the often injured Ellis. Shaughnessy was very active in the final nine games of 2009 racking up 24 tackles, four sacks, and five tackles for a loss.
Shaughnessy said in his interview with Raiders.com that the transition from college to the pros went smoothly for him, “I was a little nervous going through OTAs and mini-camps, but once everything got going I got acclimated, and it was a really smooth transition. I became more comfortable.”
· Perhaps the most puzzling move from the 2009 season, and certainly one of the more controversial decisions by the coaching staff was the choice to not start running back Michael Bush. Bush appears to be the most well rounded halfback on the roster, and even threw a couple of passes if I remember correctly.
The 6’1” 245 pound tailback is sometimes reminiscent of the great Bo Jackson, and has at times drawn such comparisons. Although Bush doesn’t possess the speed of Jackson, the raw power to run through tackles leaves fans longing for the good old days of “Bo Knows.” Bush doesn’t have Jackson’s speed, but he can run away from defenders.
Bush owns the last three one hundred yard rushing games for the Oakland Raiders offense and has shined when given his fair share of the workload. He led Oakland in yardage gained (589) and yards per carry average in 2009 (4.8), despite having six less carries than the recently cut Justin Fargas who only played in 12 of the Raiders 16 games.
To put it in perspective, if the Raiders gave Bush 20 carries per game at an average of 4.8 yards per carry for 16 games, Bush would rush for 1,536 yards by season’s end. That’s nearly three times his total this year. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can put this controversy to rest once and for all.
Alright, that’s my Raiders high five; five young Oakland Raiders players who deserve an opportunity to prove that they can play at an elite level in this league. Time will tell if the Raiders staff agrees with me.