Oakland Raiders Preseason Thoughts

Justin SmithCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2011

Oakland Raiders Preseason Thoughts

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    The Oakland Raiders had a tumultuous offseason—but with the lockout, I suppose everyone did—in which they saw their long-standing defensive leader, Nnamdi Asomugha, and their leading pass receiver, tight end Zach Miller, leave in free agency.

    Also gone was left guard Robert Gallery, and head coach Tom Cable. Though the Raiders improved on and off the field last season, and though they finished at or above .500 for the first time in seven seasons, Al Davis saw fit to jettison Cable despite endorsements from Miller and Gallery, and Cable wound up as offensive line coach in Seattle.

    It was the right move.

    Hue Jackson came on as offensive coordinator last season, and the offense was instantly improved, rocketing up to No. 6 in the NFL in scoring after failing to crack the Top 30 for the previous three seasons.

    There has been a sea change in Oakland, one that was necessary for this once proud franchise to be able to look itself in the eye again. The Raiders of old showed through at times last season, physically dominating opponents and running all over them while making big plays downfield.

    But there were also the old albatrosses hanging around the neck of the franchise: the inability to stop the run; the defense's propensity for giving up the big play; inconsistent quarterback play; and instability at the top of the food chain.

    Thus, the Raiders came into this season with a renewed focus on building a bully, stopping the run and getting more consistent play out of the quarterback and wide receiver position. Oh yeah, there's also the pesky matter of trying to replace Nnamdi, one of the best defensive backs in the entire NFL.

    How has it gone thus far? Let's see, shall we.

Jason Campbell Has Taken the Reins

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    I've always backed Jason Campbell, and felt that if put in the right situation he would succeed. He improved his numbers every season in Washington despite constant flux and dysfunction and a stream of doubters at every turn.

    He's now doing the same in Oakland, though the flux and dysfunction has tailed off recently. But his chorus of critics has only swelled since he became a Raider, which is part of the territory.

    This offseason is the first in recent memory in which there has been no off-field drama to deal with in Oakland. No Randy Hanson, no Cable and his harem, no "Lance" Kiffin tete-a-tete, no overhead projectors. Nothing but football, the playbook and teammates.

    It's benefited Campbell to be sure; as has being in the same offense for two years in a row for the first time in his adult life. He simply seems sure. Ready. No fuss, no muss. Just football.

    Campbell struggled early last season but came on late, adapting to Hue Jackson's offence and operating with more consistency and confidence as the season wore on. That confidence and comfort level only grew in the offseason as Campbell hosted throwing parties for receivers at his house in Virginia and devoured the playbook, film and a nutritious diet to stay in shape. 

    Then, the Raiders brought in Al Saunders, a heady offensive mind and Campbell's former offensive coordinator in Washington, to assist Jackson and add his encyclopedic playbook to the mix. For Campbell,  this means continuity and familiarity in an offense for the first time since Auburn, where he led the Tigers to an undefeated record and played like the first-round talent he is.

    All this has led to the rediscovery of an actual swagger in Jason Campbell. He's always been a soft-spoken leader who has seemed quiet and humble in the press, but there is a different "oomph" about him when he speaks this year. He knows this is his team, he feels this is his team and he just plain sounds like he believes in himself and in this team more than he's believed in some time. 

    The quiet, meek and wide-eyed Jason Campbell that is vilified in the press and underappreciated by fans has been replaced by a vocal, shoulders-back leader who in word and deed is staking his ownership of the team, and is sick of the sometimes unwarranted criticism he receives and wants to stick it to his critics. His response to the Raiders drafting Terrelle Pryor is a testament to that.

    His numbers in preseason are fantastic: 23/33 for 290 yards, one TD and an INT for a 95.6 rating. Good stuff. But more than the numbers, is the look in his eye. It says "It's time."

    Let's hope so.

The Offensive Line Isn't as Offensive

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    Coach Hue Jackson hasn't come right out and announced his starting offensive line, but based on playing time, performance and his not-so-subtle endorsements, it's looking to be:

    Jared Veldheer - LT

    Stefan Wisniewski - LG

    Samson Satele - C

    Cooper Carlisle - RG

    Khalif Barnes - RT

    This unit has played well this preseason, protecting Campbell and his backups while opening some holes in the run game. It's no coincidence Campbell looks much more comfortable and confident in the pocket; he actually has time to throw the ball.

    Jared Veldheer, a mauler in the run game but a turnstile in the pass game last season, has been rock solid at LT. He opened his own strength and conditioning facility during the lockout and helped train college prospects in his native Grand Rapids, MI. It paid off, as he is noticeably stronger and bigger without sacrificing any speed or agility. He looks really good.

    The disappointment here is that Carlisle and Barnes still form the right side of the line. Carlisle is a good, savvy lineman who rarely gets the credit he is due, but he's getting older and has been pushed around some this preseason.

    Barnes does not impress me. He's pushed back by bull rushers, ole'd by speed rushers, commits too many penalties and has never regained the skill he showed while starting at LT for Jacksonville. Rookie Joe Barksdale has seen quite a bit of playing time here, but he's still inexperienced and not quite ready yet. Barnes gets the job due to the two sweetest words in the English language: "de-fault."

    The disappointment lies not fully in the play of Carlisle and Barnes, but in that there are a couple of younger, better players that just aren't quite ready to step in yet.

    Bruce Campbell has looked like a beast when he's been in the lineup at RG, but he missed significant practice time this year and is a bit raw. Still, he looks ready to supplant Carlisle at any time. He is extremely big and strong for an interior lineman, and has the speed to pull out on stretch plays.

    With his size, strength and long arms, Campbell seems better suited for tackle; however, the team is insistent on grooming him for RG, and he has taken to it quite well. So RG it is.

    Stephon Heyer, an offseason acquisition from Washington, was showing starting potential before injuring his tricep. He's back at practice and pushing Carlisle for playing time but isn't quite there yet. 

    At the moment, Carlisle and Barnes are getting the benefit of being veterans playing in a familiar system during a lockout year. But given time, I see Campbell replacing Carlisle and Barksdale replacing Barnes, giving the Raiders a young, large, ferocious O-line for years to come.

    Add to the mix former starter Daniel Loper at guard, and the competition on the O-line has ensured not only an improved starting five, but an impressive group of backups that are versatile and game tested.

    Finally, the line is coming together.

The Raiders Unearthed a Couple More Late-Round Gems

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    By now, you've all heard about Denarius Moore. He's the wideout taken with a fifth-round draft pick that has been outplaying every other receiver in camp thus far.

    He's also the guy that took a punt return 57 yards on his first touch, catches everything thrown his way and generally looks like a steal of a draft pick and a big-play guy for years to come. Again.

    Think Michael Bush, Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford. All fourth round or higher picks, all key components of this offense. Add Moore to that mix.

    Moore was a surprise to some, but many in Raider Nation knew he was capable of big plays and special things. Although he didn't put up monster numbers at Tennessee, that's due more to the fact that the Vols quarterbacks were about as consistent and talented as I am than any indictment of Moore's ability.

    Despite having few receptions, Moore averaged more than 20 yards per catch, showcasing big-play ability and making the most of every single one of his touches. He's continued that trend during the preseason.

    Taiwan Jones is fast. Not just Raider fast, but perhaps even faster than that. Steve Corkran and Jerry McDonald both believe he may be faster than Darren McFadden, and his running technique has been described as "gliding on rails." Not only is he fast, he's smooth.

    But he's fairly small, so he can't run between the tackles. Right? Right?

    Wrong. He showed against the Saints on Sunday night that he can run inside, outside, up, over, around, under and wherever you'd like him to run. And he'll do it smoothly and quickly. Running is not an issue.

    The one thing he needs to work on to get on the field more often is blitz pickup. He was run over like class at a Kardashian party by Jonathan Casillias, who basically sacked Trent Edwards with Jones' airborne body. It was ugly; and it was proof Jones has a long way to go before he can be trusted with blocking.

    But running the ball? No worries there. This kid is special.

Pass Defense Will Improve

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    Losing Nnamdi Asomugha was going to hurt, we all knew that. But even the most pessimistic of us couldn't have anticipated how much it would hurt.

    Let me couch that with the fact that this is preseason, and many of our young guys are learning. That's the disclaimer.

    Now, that doesn't excuse the fact that the Raiders are giving up more successful passes than Snooki at the club. We simply cannot stop teams from throwing the ball on us. Even the San Francisco 49ers, who've looked like a last-place Pop Warner team most of the preseason, had some aerial success against us.

    I'm talking Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, or the NFL's answer to the Keystone Kops. Yep, those guys. They played well against the Raiders. That, more than Brees carving up the secondary like a Christmas ham, is the biggest indictment of the lack of pass coverage on the back end.

    DeMarcus Van Dyke, a rookie third-round pick from The U., has been the most frequent target. That's because he's been the most frequent victim, as well.

    It's kind of misleading, because the two biggest plays Van Dyke has given up, a ridiculous one-handed Tyree-esque helmet pin by Larry Fitzgerald, and a long sideline route to Devery Henderson this past Sunday, have been covered extremely well.

    Van Dyke had blanket coverage on both throws; he just didn't make a play on the ball. In fact, on the Henderson completion, he didn't even turn around to look for the ball. Had he, he might have picked it off. If the kid can learn some ball skills, he'll be a good player.

    Chimdi Chekwa looks lost and out of sorts, and Stevie Brown is lacking the nose for the ball as well as the big-play potential he showed last season. Tyvon Branch can tackle but couldn't cover a duvet, and Michael Huff's strength covering tight ends, is being pushed to the background as he has to step in to Nickel corner to help the young guys who can't cover.

    Chris Johnson hasn't been on the field, and that certainly has something to do with the porous coverage. Stanford Routt blanketed Colston on Sunday and has looked good, but he's the only one thus far.

    Sterling Moore, an undrafted rookie, has actually played better than former draft choices Walter McFadden and Jeremy Ware, although Ware has improved this week.

    The Raiders are loathe to release draft picks, but Moore has vastly outplayed McFadden and deserves a roster spot far above and beyond the former fifth-round choice.

    The Raiders have to address a secondary that's easier to score on than the cast of Jersey Shore or it will be a long, long season. Perhaps veteran corner Lito Sheppard can help. Let's hope so.

Rolando McClain

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    Rolando McClain was drafted No. 8 overall in the 2010 NFL draft to help the Oakland Raiders shore up a run defense that was very porous and leaky.

    For once, it was said, the Raiders used their first-round draft pick for need and value, and not for a combine star or pure straight line speed.

    But McClain struggled in his first season, having a difficult time adapting to the speed of the NFL game. This was probably due to the fact that he came into the NFL without really respecting the difference between college and the pros.

    He was repeatedly heard to say that the NFL wasn't that challenging, that the speed of the game wasn't much different, and it wouldn't be hard at all for him to adjust. He seemed to feel he was a Pro Bowler without taking a snap; a sense of entitlement pervaded.

    This season, he admitted he was dead wrong and that the speed and talent in the NFL was to be respected. He humbled himself, has worked out accordingly, and come into this year with renewed focus. He has promised we will see a better Ro-Mac this year.

    It's ironic that McClain was drafted to help stop the run and many felt his skills in coverage were lacking, yet the Raiders' run defense still struggled while McClain showed that he was very skilled covering tight ends and backs down the field. 

    This preseason, he has been everywhere. He's been around the ball almost constantly when he's on the field —which hasn't been often due to some nagging nicks and it being preseason—whether in the run or pass game, and he's already showing he can be one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.

    However, he needs to regain the mean and nasty streak he possessed at Alabama to get his head right in the run game. We need this man to be the steady, dominant presence up the middle that is active on so many stellar defenses. With Seymour and Kelly in front of him, he should have no problems with double teams, and his newfound respect for the athletes in the NFL ensures he won't expect things to fall into place. He knows now that he has to work for what he gets.

Terrelle Pryor

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    It's amazing how often I've read the following sentiments since Terrelle Pryor was drafted by the Raiders in the third round of the supplemental draft last Monday:

    1) The Raiders are idiots, or at least that's the tag line from most critics and fans out there. This sentiment is so laughable but not surprising. It is the Raiders, and they can do no right. If the Patriots made the same move, there would've been an eight-hour ESPN special on the Genius of the Hood. But nope; the Raiders are idiots.

    2) The Raiders mortgaged their draft on Pryor. Nope. We'll get compensatory picks for Zach Miller and Nnamdi Asomugha that are probably equal to where we chose Pryor, essentially making it a free pick. The others we don't have? The fourth-round pick was traded for Jason Campbell, which is working well for us. So we'll be just fine in next year's draft, thank you. Plus we got two QB's, one of whom is a starter, the other potentially the future. That's a good draft no matter which way you slice it, and it's not even 2012 yet.

    3) Terrelle Pryor is an awful, awful human being. I mean, he ruined a storied program at Ohio State all by himself. Only, he didn't. He had plenty of help, including from his coach. When it came time to rat them all out and throw people under the bus, he stayed silent. What he did wasn't admirable, and he paid for it. But it wasn't tantamount to murder either, people.

    4) Pryor deserves to be suspended. Really? And Aquib Talib and Kenny Britt don't? Perrish Cox is facing a life sentence for sexual assault and he's still returning kicks for the Broncos. Pryor wasn't even an NFL player when he committed his transgressions.

    I understand the NFL is trying to "maintain the integrity of the process" which is downright comical, considering the supplemental draft is made up of players who, for whatever reason, are no longer eligible for NCAA play but didn't make it in time to file for the NFL draft. These people include those who have taken money from agents, failed out of school or been kicked out for disciplinary reasons. 

    Yes, integrity. Wouldn't want a kid who cheated in school to get rewarded by going to the NFL. Except....that's exactly what the supplemental draft is all about. The difference here? Pryor's transgressions in college weren't bad ENOUGH to get him kicked out; so he's suspended.

    Makes sense, huh?

Conclusion

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    The Raiders offense looks much sharper, more focused and efficient than any in recent years. Jason Campbell is poised, confident and ready to lead this team. Darren McFadden hasn't played in a game, but is still the best player on the field when he suits up in camp, and young players like Denarius Moore and Taiwan Jones give room for hope that the offense can put up some major points.

    The defence is a work in progress as they attempt to fill the void left by Nnamdi at cornerback. A player like Nnamdi requires all 11 guys stepping up their game to replace his production, as he wasn't just a shutdown corner but a solid tackler in run support as well. This defense is very young and inexperienced at key positions. The return of CJ and Routt to full health will go a long way to shoring up the pass defence, and McClain, Seymour and Kelly will clog that middle.

    I truly believe the Raiders may start slowly on defense but by midseason they will have an all-around team that can compete with, and beat, anyone.

    As of right now, there is a lot of work to do on the defensive side of the ball, but I am encouraged by what I saw toward the end of last season, and what I've seen from some of our young players.

    We need to try and stay patient, Nation, as some of our kids get baptized in the fire. But they will be the better for it down the road. Let us just hope it's not at the expense of victory.

     

     

    Thanks for reading as always folks; your comments are respected, encouraged and appreciated!