Something strange is going on in Napa. Something so un-Raider-like that a global watch has begun for other signs of what must be an impending apocalypse. What is it that has world leaders and the Raider Nation alike in a quandary?
There’s no discussion of hold outs. No real buzz about Lane Kiffin’s future (that will have to wait until Week 2). No 300-lb quarterbacks. Heck, the Raiders weren’t even seriously involved in the Brett Favre discussions!
In fact, aside from Javon Walker’s near retirement and two or three minor position battles, this camp has been devoid of any real controversy.
The question is: Will all this peace lead to a successful 2008 campaign? And while even the most hopeful fans realize the Silver and Black are still a year or two away from serious contention, there is some reason for optimism. Here now, the preseason roster breakdown.
Projected Starter: JaMarcus Russell
Depth: Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo
For the first time since Rich Gannon was screaming in the huddle, the Raiders have some certainty about the position heading into the regular season. Don’t mistake certainty for expectations, however.
The facts remain that Russell struggled learning the playbook last year and, much like Walter, is best suited to throw from the pocket. We’ve seen, early on in practice, that when he’s forced to move, his accuracy drops significantly.
Still, the fact remains that he’s a 6’6" monster with a cannon for a right arm and has serious potential. If the Raiders give him time to throw, and the running game works as planned, he may accelerate that learning curve.
Of course, the Raiders are one Kwame Harris whiff away from two guys that will never be mistaken for playoff saviors. Don’t be surprised if Oakland gets involved in the Chad Pennington sweepstakes and sends Walter or Marques packing.
Projected Starters: Kwame Harris (LT), Robert Gallery(LG), John Wade (C), Cooper Carlisle (RG), Cornell Green (RT)
Depth: Jake Grove, Paul McQuistan, Mario Henderson, Fred Wakefield, Jesse Boone
It’s no surprise that the Raiders will only go as far as the road graders up front. When people think about the success of the millennium squads, they like to remember Gannon, Tim Brown, and Charlie Garner.
They seem to forget it was the work of a (medicated) Barrett Robbins, Lincoln Kennedy, and their brethren that made that team go. If you don’t believe me, go pull up a tape of the Raiders/Steelers game from 2003 and see how many times Rich Gannon was touched on his 65 pass attempts.
First, the good news.
This is year two of Tom Cable’s zone-blocking scheme, and they should only be better. Gallery has found a home as a guard, and Kwame Harris is an underappreciated run blocker.
Now the bad.
Harris may be able to run block, but there’s nothing to suggest that his pass blocking has improved. There are far more questions about the right side of the line than answers, and honestly, how good can Mario Henderson be if he can’t crack into this group?
One of camp’s true battles this year is at center. Former Rimmington Award winner Jake Grove gets one last chance to earn a starting nod, but he’s battling the very definition of “grizzled veteran” in John Wade.
Look for Wade’s experience to win out over Grove’s youth. The Raiders will need career years across the line to have any hope of a winning campaign this season.
Projected Starters: Justin Fargas, Justin Griffith
Depth: Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, Oren O’Neal
Fargas will keep the seat warm for McFadden, but if Darren shows the explosiveness we saw in Arkansas, don’t be surprised if his name is called out on Monday night under the lights in the opener.
Huggy Bear matured into a tough, inside-the-tackles ball carrier last season before his injury and, even with McFadden, he’ll be an important role in the offense. The NFL is no longer a single-back league. Every elite team has at least two, capable ball carriers, and depth here is important.
One area where McFadden can provide a significant lift is as a pass catcher. As we’ve seen through the first two weeks of camp, JaMarcus has worked hard on knowing his check downs. It seems one lesson he did manage to learn from the sidelines last year is that 3rd-and-5 is a heck of a lot better than 3rd-and-10.
D-Mac will have to continue to serve as a dual threat, if only to keep Russell alive. The good news is that his ability to motion to the slot and get isolated against a linebacker should give Kiffin’s offense an element of versatility that he didn’t have last year.
McFadden will have to monitor his ball safety, as he’s been plagued by fumbling issues over the years. The depth of this year’s squad is impressive, with Michael Bush, a former Heisman candidate, relegated to special-teams work.
The good news is that if someone does go down, insurance, thy name is Bush.
The other Justin in the backfield showed that he can provide a lead block, pick up a blitz, and run a wheel route. Between Griffith and O’Neal, the Raiders are set at the fullback position.
In fact, there’s a strong chance that the Raider’s offense will use more two-back sets this year. With depth at wide receiver an issue, and the pass-catching ability of TE Zach Miller something the team wants to highlight, it’s possible the fullback will be featured as a sixth offensive lineman more often.
Projected Starter: Zach Miller
Depth: John Madsen, Tony Stewart
Take heart, Raider Nation, the legacy of pass-catching tight ends is secure in the hands of Zach Miller. From Casper to Christensen, Oakland has been blessed with talented receivers at the position. Miller is no exception.
In fact, his only blemish is that he’s every bit the capable blocker, forcing the coaching staff to use his skills to help pick up the slack on the line. John Madsen remains a vertical threat, but not much of a blocker, so expect two-tight-end sets to include the burly Stewart.
The key will be getting Miller off the line and into the pattern, in order to provide a capable set of hands for Russell (see fullbacks above). It’s easy to envision Miller with a 70-catch season, as JaMarcus continues to settle into progressions.
Projected Starters: Ronald Curry, Javon Walker
Depth: Drew Carter, Todd Watkins, Johnnie Lee Higgins
Somebody has to step up from this group, right? Hello? Anyone?
Don’t kid yourself, this is a real problem for Oakland. Ronald Curry looks like the best of the bunch, but he has had two serious leg injuries. He has looked solid, if unspectacular in camp, but every time he takes a hit the Nation holds its collective breath.
Javon Walker is in many ways one of the saddest people in football and may not make it out of Napa. He hasn’t been the same since the tragic shooting two years ago. His escapades in Las Vegas this past summer are troubling, and the recent retirement talk is proof that he’s in a bad place.
Truthfully someone should send him to Hawaii for a week to get away from football, clear his head, and decide his future.
But that’s just not the NFL way, so instead, he’ll remain the one drama in camp right up until he takes the field against Denver on Monday night.
Drew Carter has looked like he wants to win a job this summer, and he just might. The question remains: Was last year a harbinger of things to come or a flash in the pan?
He has the size and speed to make a difference and, by the looks of things, he’ll be given every opportunity to. The only true surprise in camp so far has been the play of former BYU stand out, Todd Watkins.
He’s caught everything thrown his way, he’s shown good speed, and he’s made plays. The rest of the group is a collection of McFoys, Shields, Hollands, and Higgins, and with the suspect injury-history of the starters, that’s got to keep Kiffin up at night.
Projected Starters: Derrick Burgess, Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren, Jay Richardson
Depth: Greg Spires, Kalimba Edwards, Josh Shaw, Terdell Sands, William Joseph
There is talent here. The tackle rotation, if healthy, should be stout between Kelly, Warren, Shaw and Sands. Burgess has a few more years of being an elite pass-rusher still.
The major question remains: Who will rush from the other side? The coaching staff has been high on Jay Richardson, and Edwards and Spires may have something to give.
Spires is the most proven commodity, and if he can find one more year in his legs, they may just have their answer. This group should be helped by the secondary. With two shutdown corners, they should find the extra second they need to make a difference up front.
There are questions here.
Kelly will have an undue amount of pressure from his $55 million deal. Sands has never played up to his size. Warren is only as good as his motivation, and William Joseph has yet to live up to his University of Miami hype.
Kalimba Edwards has been streaky, Spires has 11 years of wear and tear, and Jay Richardson is largely unproven. Most sentences about these guys start with the most dangerous word in sports: “if”.
If they can stay healthy...if they can get a push...if they can plug the gaps. If these things happen, this defense can be scary.
Projected Starters: Kirk Morrison, Thomas Howard, Ricky Brown
Depth: Sam Williams, Ed Hartwell, Robert Thomas, Jon Alston
There may not be a faster linebacking corps in the league. Howard and Morrison have been absolute draft home runs and, while the weak side is a question, Brown, Thomas, and Williams all have the talent to start in this league.
Ed Hartwell’s best years are behind him but remains a viable option for 10-15 snaps a game. This group will be helped by the presence of Gibril Wilson as a run-stuffing safety, and their speed alone covers a lot of mistakes.
The real question here is: Can one or more of these guys get after the quarterback? Last season’s eye-opening interception totals could transform into sack totals with the freedom that may come with that stout secondary.
Projected Starters: Nnamdi Asomugha, DeAngelo Hall, Michael Huff, Gibril Wilson
Depth: Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, Hiram Eugene, Jarrod Cooper, John Bowie, Tyvon Branch
Argue all you want about Champ Bailey and Dre Bly, the best in the west are Hall and Asomugha. In Rob Ryan’s bump-and-run style, these two guys should be fine on their respective islands.
Their coverage ability should give Ryan flexibility to dial up blitzes from the linebackers and safeties, and the extra time it takes to get open against these two will only help the defensive line get after things. Last year’s starter, Routt should be a capable nickelback. There’s not a lot going on behind this group, so depth is something to keep an eye on.
The other new guy in the backfield brings his Super Bowl ring back home to the West Coast. Gibril Wilson returns to the Bay Area to shore up the strong-safety position.
His run stopping and hitting bring a dimension to the team that Stu Schweigert just didn’t offer. And as a gift that keeps on giving, his arrival frees Michael Huff up to man his natural spot at free safety.
This camp, he’s already shown glimpses of the ball-hawking skills that made him a high first-round pick three years ago. If he can provide support to his corners and increase his interception totals (almost a sure bet), he may finally add the value the Raiders originally envisioned.
While passing the Chargers in the AFC West is an unlikely dream, the Broncos and Chiefs are vulnerable this season. While there are questions all around this roster (and who outside of New England doesn’t have questions?), the pieces are in place for a rebounding year.
But like a good meal, it takes more than good ingredients. It takes time. Just how quickly this group can gel and have an impact will be a reflection on the coaching staff and relative maturity of the players.
Next Up: A week-by-week look at the upcoming season.