Oakland Raiders Shuffle: Important Position Battles Still Unsettled
In the offseason, the Oakland Raiders brought in a lot of new blood to improve the team, as well as create competition at some positions of weakness such as offensive line, defensive line, and fullback.
However, other positional battles have emerged throughout the preseason, and the starting lineup on both sides of the ball is far from settled at this point.
While the most heated battle for a starting spot remains the four-man cluster at fullback, there are other spots on the football field that the Raiders need to shore up before the season starts.
Fortunately, many of the new challengers to the incumbents possess talent. Unfortunately, a vast majority of those challengers are either rookies with no real NFL game experience, or players who have been unable to reach their potential.
This is my take on the positions that need solidifying before September 12, and the players involved in the competition.
Third Running Back
With beloved Justin "Huggy Bear" Fargas (pictured), a free agent after a traitorous few weeks with the hated Denver Broncos, the Raiders have a hole in the backfield after Michael Bush and Darren McFadden.
Thankfully, we won't have to see the odd and depressing sight of Huggy in a Broncos uniform this season, as he was released yesterday.
Both Michael Bennett and Rock Cartwright, the two men vying to replace Fargas, are experienced NFL players that bring different strengths to the table.
Bennett is the more explosive of the two, able to accelerate very quickly and show some elusiveness while running full speed. He has proven to be very adept on screens, picking his hole and then hitting it hard and fast. Bennett thus far has shown a great burst and is a former 1,000 yard rusher, who doesn't seem to have lost any speed.
Cartwright is the more versatile of the two. He has experience playing fullback, and he returns kickoffs and contributes in kick coverage as well. His ability to make himself valuable as more than a running back is the only thing keeping him in line with Bennett right now, as Bennett has been more impressive as a runner thus far in preseason and training camp.
With numerous fullbacks already competing for the job and some new blood in Jacoby Ford and Nick Miller to return kicks, Cartwright's versatility may not be enough to edge him past Bennett.
But with Bush's thumb currently an issue, it may pave the way to keep both players, at least until Bush is fully healthy. At this point, the length of Bush's recovery is a wait and see timeline, as is the decision on the two backs.
When Michael Huff began last season with three interceptions early, it seemed that he was finally getting it as an NFL safety, befitting his high-draft status.
Back in his natural position of free safety, Huff provided excellent coverage last season on the back end. Unfortunately, his weakness as a tackler in run support was exposed often last year, and has been exposed repeatedly this offseason as well.
Big plays kill this team, and they need someone at safety who can stop those big plays in the run game. The optimism that Huff's light bulb had finally popped is dwindling. He is still excellent in coverage, but remains a liability in the run game.
Mike Mitchell, the Raiders surprise second-round draft pick from last season, is healthy after battling hamstring injuries last year and is a force in run support. He provides jaw-rattling hits and tackling is not an issue.
Coverage, however, has proven to be a large issue for Mitchell, which is why he doesn't see the field very often. Though his skills seem to translate better to strong safety, Tyvon Branch's play has ensured that position is one that is set. Mitchell must improve in coverage if he hopes to wrestle the starting job from Huff.
Stevie Brown, a seventh-round choice in this year's draft, has been great in OTA's, training camp and preseason games thus far. He has two picks against admittedly lesser competition, but as a former linebacker, he knows how to play the run, and he is a sure tackler. He has also shown excellent ball-hawking instincts on the back end, whether live or in practice.
Mitchell is still too raw in coverage and Brown too green, so I cannot see either of them supplanting Huff at the moment.
But if Huff continues to struggle in run support, the Raiders have no choice but to make a change. It is imperative that run defense be better for this team to improve, and right now Huff isn't getting it done in that respect.
Since Barrett Robbins went off the reservation back in 2002, the Raiders have been searching for a center to anchor the offensive line.
They drafted Jake Grove, who is a good player when healthy, which he never was when he played for Oakland.
The Raiders essentially swapped Grove with the Dolphins for their center Samson Satele. Coach Tom Cable felt that he fit the Raiders new zone blocking scheme better than Grove; a bigger, stronger mauler type center, who isn't as agile as Satele.
Well, Satele has been a big disappointment so far, proving to be poor in pass protection, and not nearly the blocker in space Cable expected when he arrived.
Chris Morris, the Raiders' backup, has also not impressed, and gets called for a quite a few penalties to boot.
Enter rookie Jared Veldheer, a 6'8" mountain of a man that has the strength and, thus far, the technique to handle bigger tackles in the middle of the line. He has also shown an ability to get to the second level on screens and sweeps, and has good instincts for the game.
Although he possesses traditional left tackle size, Veldheer started at center against the 49ers on Saturday, and showed that while he has great potential, he still has a lot to learn.
He was eaten up on a couple of A-gap blitzes by Patrick Willis, failing to first recognize the blitz and adjust the protection scheme accordingly, and then failing to even chip Willis on either play.
As a rookie, it's understandable to make these mistakes on occasion, and it is a work in progress. Veldheer thus far has impressed enough, while Satele and Morris have not, and I could see him starting against the Titans.
Of course, Cable develops crushes on some players and Satele, for some reason, seems to be one of them. Cable's trust in his experience make it more likely that if fully healthy, Satele will be snapping the ball on September 12. Cable would be wise to keep him on a short leash, however, as he's struggled throughout his Raider tenure.
In life, it's nice to have options. Sometimes, though, too many options can confuse and muddle a situation, especially when those options have very different qualities.
Welcome to the Oakland Raiders' fullback carousel, where even defensive lineman get a chance to shine!
Right now the battle for fullback is between incumbent Luke Lawton, practice squad member and fan favourite Marcel Reece, and undrafted free agents Manase Tonga and Chane Moline.
Lawton was hampered with a concussion to start training camp, and has seen little action since healthy. He's about to be Wally Pipped out of his job.
Lawton is a solid blocker with decent hands, but has never really shown much in action, and with him facing a two-game suspension for a banned substance, his time in the Silver & Black is most likely numbered.
Reece is the most athletic of the group and easily the best receiver. He has bulked up a little since last year, but failed to pick up the blitz against the Niners and has shown little in the way of road-grading blocking ability.
Moline is average at best and either an outright cut or practice squad at the best. In fact, as I write this, I just learned he was cut today.
Tonga is the best blocker of all the fullbacks, but has shown little ability in the passing game. He is a hell of a blocker though.
As Jerry McDonald of Inside the Bay Area stated, if you could mash all the Raiders candidates together, you'd have the perfect fullback on your hands.
The position has been so unsettled that second-round pick and defensive end Lamarr Houston, who played fullback in high school, and undrafted defensive end Alex Daniels were given reps. Neither worked out, and Houston was never really an option anyway, as he wasn't drafted in the second round to be a fullback.
At this point, I give the nod to Reece. The way that Baltimore used LaRon McClain, and Hue Jackson's experience in that offense, leads me to believe he's more inclined to choose someone who can contribute to the offense on the stat sheet as well.
Reece has shown excellent burst with the football and reads screens very well. If he can improve his blocking, he will be an excellent and complete fullback.
He'd better do it soon, because the O-line has struggled in pass protection and providing running lanes, and we need to keep our QBs healthy and establish a strong running game.
Those facts may see the Raiders keep two fullbacks, in which case my money is on Tonga for his blocking ability.
Second Corner Back
The Raiders, who play man coverage, have had the luxury of cutting the field in half by employing the arguably the best shut-down corner in the NFL in the "Awesome One," Nnamdi Asomugha.
Because of Asomugha's skills, his partner in the backfield tends to see the majority of the action. Quarterbacks simply don't throw Nnamdi's way, so his cohort needs to be on point at all times.
This season may change slightly, as Nnamdi will be roving more and clinging to the opponent's No. 1 receiver the majority of the time. Still, his partner will see a ton of action due to Nnamdi's coverage abilities.
Chris Johnson has been his partner in crime since halfway through the 2008 season, when the failed DeAngelo Hall experiment was mercifully euthanized.
CJ has shown the ability to be around the ball, but he has also shown lapses in concentration and a failure to cover bigger receivers. With all the action he sees, this can hurt.
Stanford Routt has been the nickel back since he was drafted in the second round in 2005 and the Raiders have always hoped, with his measurables and speed, that he could wrest the other starting corner job opposite Nnamdi and hold it tightly.
That has yet to happen, however, as Routt also has a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel in coverage. It seems that he thinks his speed can make up for lapses, but that's not the case. He's been one to assume his athleticism can make up for poor fundamentals, and he's paid for it.
Coach Cable stated earlier in training camp that it was an open competition, and Routt has stepped up his game thus far this offseason. Johnson has been hampered by hamstring issues, which could develop into a problem for a speed position.
At this point with his improvement, CJ's seeming regression after a good OTA camp, and Cable and Al Davis' affinity for Routt, I would give the nod to Stanford snagging the second cornerback position.
Raider fans in 2008 were used to seeing this pose from Jonnie Lee Higgins—or JLH as he's known to the Nation—as Higgins went from a virtual unknown to one of the most dangerous punt returners in the NFL.
Also showing an ability to take slant patterns to the house, Higgins' star was rising and the Raiders were excited to have their most explosive return man since Tim Brown also progressed as a receiver.
In the opening game in 2009, Higgins caught the ball and was immediately laced up viciously by Chargers' safety Erick Weddle. It was a clean hit, and Higgins has never been the same since.
Tentative in both the return and passing game, Higgins lost the mojo that saw him entertain fans with the electric slide and backflips after a big return, and seemed to lack confidence on the field.
The Raiders had some success returning kickoffs with Justin Miller, but he was released after the 2008 season. Last year, the Raiders struggled mightily, and their best kick returner was Gary Russell, an overweight fullback with little "take it to the house" ability. In short, the return game last season was pathetic.
Nick Miller, a water-bug type guy with good speed and vision, played very well in training camp in 2009 and looked to be a lock for the roster until he broke his shin. Oddly, the Raiders kept him on the active roster, hoping he'd return and inject some life in the return game.
Miller is back and healthy this year, and competing with Higgins, free-agent Yamon Figurs (formerly of Baltimore) and draft pick Jacoby Ford (the fastest man at the combine) for the return job.
They are also competing for the fifth and sixth wideout spots behind Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and I think Todd Watkins will make it this year.
Each is quick, each is shifty, and each has excellent vision. Figurs is the most experienced, having returned kicks and punts for the Ravens. Higgins is the incumbent, but has still yet to regain his previous magic and is no further ahead than the others.
Ford is the fastest and most elusive, and my prediction to return punts. He's also shown well as a wide receiver, I can see Higgins being cut, as he just seems to have lost his confidence; he's played decently in the passing game, but his returns have been poor.
Figurs has fumbled not really showing anything special. I expect he'll be cut shortly.
Miller has made some nice plays in the passing game, and I think will be the sixth wideout and the kick returner. He just seems to have a knack for making plays.
Regardless, someone in this group needs to step up to give this team a home-run threat in the return game.
Let the Shuffling Begin......
By Sunday of this week, the rosters will be pared down to the maximum 53 players that will wear the Silver & Black this season. This man has some difficult decisions ahead of him.
Cuts have already begun, with the aforementioned fullback candidate Chane Moline being a part of a group that also includes OL Allen Smith, WR Paul Hubbard, and in a bit of a surprise, TE Tony Stewart.
Cuts will continue throughout the week, and with competition very much alive until they play their final preseason game Thursday night against Seattle, decisions hang in the balance.
While many of us had hoped young Bruce Campbell would supplant Cooper Carlisle at right guard, that is still a little while away, based on performances.
It's nice to have competition on the roster, as it will only serve to improve the play of those involved.
At the same time, it would be great to see one guy in each respective position really step up and seize the job to reduce the fuzziness of current affairs.
I can't be sure that any of my predictions will be correct, but one thing I can be sure of is that by the end of the week, the big picture will reveal itself. And the debates will begin in earnest.
Everyone please let me know what you think, what I've missed, why I'm wrong, etc., and thank you for reading!