For those of you not counting down, it is only 17 days until the Oakland Raiders assemble in Napa, California for their training camp. There will be several position battles beginning on July 28, all of which will play prominent roles in determining who cracks the starting lineup and who gets cut.
I will rank the importance of these position battles from last to first.
Free Safety: This match is pinning Michael Huff (No. 7 overall draft pick in 2006) against restricted free agent Hiram Eugene, who the Raiders signed as an undrafted rookie in 2006. Eugene has piled up 106 career tackles, with six passes defensed and 1 INT (last season vs. Pittsburgh), and he's never played a full season.
Michael Huff was handed the starting job as a rookie in 2006. Since then, he has made 215 tackles, 31 passes defensed, and four INTs (three last year).
My Prediction: Huff and Eugene have had a back-and-forth style. Tom Cable benched Huff for Eugene back in 2008. Then in 2009, Huff started strong, with three INTs in the first two games. But he then went quiet until he made a lights-out shot on Brandon Marshall in Denver as the Raiders won. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pj4FFsctEcA
I expect to see another power struggle between these guys. Contract sizes have made the last say on playing time in the past, which I will mention again later. If this is the case, Huff will get the job but it won’t be safe.
Defensive End: On one side of the line, there is Richard Seymour. He has no threat to take his playing time. But the other side is up for grabs, with Matt Shaugnessy (26 tackles, four sacks as a rookie in 2009) against Lamarr Houston (second round pick from Texas) and Jay Richardson (82 tackles, seven sacks in three years). J-Rich has never had the consistency to hold his side of the line. Shaugnessy is still young as he enters his second year and Lamarr Houston has never played in the NFL.
My Prediction: I expect to see a rotation that varies on passing or rushing situations. J-Rich has always been a good pass rusher, but he was outperformed by the rising Matt Shaugnessy. Lamarr Houston was a tackle in college, so he has the size to stuff the run on the edge.
Outside Linebacker: Thomas Howard (314 tackles, seven INTs and four sacks in four years) was replaced on his edge last year by defensive end turned outside line-backer Trevor Scott (57 tackles, 12 sacks, and one FF in two years).
Defensive Coordinator Jon Marshall likes to use Scott as a blitz-backer. While Thomas Howars looks better in pass coverage, six of his seven INTs came in 2007. Howard was given a restricted free agent tender this offseason. If he fails to improve his all-around game, he could be out of Oakland in 2011.
My Prediction: I see another rotation here. Trevor Scott should be used in passing situations if he blitzes and Howard should be used for coverage. As far as running situations go, that is for training camp to decide.
Running Back: Darren McFadden ( 217 carries for 856 yards and five TDs in two years) is challenged by Michael Bush (218 carries for 1,010 yards and six TDs in two years). I mentioned earlier how contracts can determine playing time, here is a case of that.
McFadden has stuggled through injuries and been to weak to break tackles while Michael Bush led the Raiders in YPC last year at a stellar 4.8 frame. With Justin Fargas gone, these two will be able to show what they can do with a full season to work with.
My Prediction: With Hue Jackson calling plays, the Raiders are expected to have more power running plays to set up the play-action passes. With power running, I would expect Michael Bush to take the majority of the carries. McFadden can find a home for himself as a receiver out of the backfield, or as a change of pace runner.
Remember all the talk of Marcus Allen moving to receiver when he was young, then remember what a great career he had? Who says McFadden can’t do the same?
Offensive Tackle: With Cornell Green gone, there are three options: rookie Jared Veldheer (who just signed with the Raiders), Langston Walker (in his second stint with Oakland), and Khalif Barnes (supposed to compete last year until he broke his ankle in training camp).
None of these men can be as bad as Green was last year. If they are, the Raiders are in trouble.
My Prediction: Judging by the OTAs, I think this job is going to go to Khailf Barnes, but training camp will have the final say. Walker is pushing Barnes for the job and Veldheer is always an option. Look how well Jake Long worked for Miami as a rookie. But Veldheer is not Jake Long.
Quarterback: The team will only be as good as the QB. This was a proven fact when Bruce Gradkowski led the Raiders to wins against the Bengals and at Pittsburgh while JaMarcus Russell got the Raiders clobbered week in and week out.
Jason Campbell comes off a season where he threw for 3,618 yards with 20 TDs and 15 INTs. Not great numbers, but legendary compared to Russell. Gradkowski is likely the biggest threat to J.C. after his great play last year. Gradkowski was never benched from the starter job, he lost it to injury.
My Prediction: I think we can all say that Campbell will start opening day against the Titans. He has the abilities to lead the Raiders back to respectability but he is not being given his money before he does that. J.C. has two years left on his contract and he will make less than $5 million both seasons. If he was only in it for the money, he would have not shown up to OTAs.