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2009 Raiders: Key Position Battles

Jerry MooneyContributor IMay 29, 2009

What will be your team’s biggest positional battles (veterans vs. emerging youngsters, rookies battling it out to make an impact on the roster) of camp? As teams prepare for the upcoming season plotlines begin to develop, thankfully this year the dominant theme isn’t Al vs. Lane.

There are questions of interest on this young and ever evolving roster. Here are a few of the position battles that will have my eye on.

Safety

With the last few year’s drafting of Michael Huff, Tyvon Branch, this year’s addition of Michael Mitchell the safety position is young and athletic, if unproven. Incumbent starter Hiram Eugene is a coach favorite and a reliable veteran. Keith Davis was recently added, providing additional depth and special teams help.

Keith Davis coming aboard makes the scenario more interesting, because Branch and Mitchell were specifically expected to contribute on special teams. By adding Davis, even if he doesn’t press for a starting position, he makes the availability of each safety more interesting.

Michael Huff was selected seventh overall and has the skill sets and mental makeup to leave Raider fans scratching their heads as to why he hasn’t been more effective. If Huff doesn’t have a breakout year, don’t expect him to be on the roster in 2010. As such, he is playing to eschew the bust label and carve a niche in the NFL as a starter.

Nothing would be more satisfying to Raider fans than to see Mike Mitchell justify is selection in the draft to all of the skeptics. When he was selected ESPN and the NFL Network analysts collectively choked as the found themselves without notes on this under-the-radar kid from Ohio U.

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Tyvon Branch needs to progress from a season where he showed flashes of ability before being lost to injury. Each player has talent and questions. Huff has the burden of his contract. It will be interesting to see how this position plays out as camp unfolds. My money is on Eugene and Huff to start with a late push by Branch and Mitchell. Whoever emerges is going to be counted on to sew up the recently porous run defense as well as help in coverage.

Lets hope some gems emerge.

Offensive Tackle

Although quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers tend to garner the highlights and headlines, the offensive line is really where an offense succeeds or fails. Marginal players become good behind good offensive lines and great players look bad behind lines that don’t block.

On the line the tackles are the most important and hardest to find. That is particularly true of the left side, which is charged with protecting the quarterbacks blindside. This year the Raiders signed Khalif Barnes to a reasonable one year contract. He will have to earn an subsequent years and bigger dollars, so the Raiders are not on the hook for much if he becomes the next Kwame Harris. Barnes is only 26 and has started since his rookie year on the playoff contending Jacksonville Jaguars. As such, he has amassed credible credentials as a guardian of the JaMarcus’ backside.

He slipped last year, but so did the whole Jacksonville team. It will be interesting to see which Khalif Barnes emerges for the Raiders.

Competing with Barnes on the left side is equally mammoth Mario Henderson. Mario was barely able to earn a roster spot or see action early in his career. Similarly, Henderson didn’t start early on at Florida State. Perhaps he’s a little slow on the uptake, but seems to play well once acclimated.

Only a two year vet, Henderson was thrust into action after the penalties of Kwame Harris became too much to stomach. Once in place Henderson began to earn his nickname of Super Mario. His play earned him the inside track to start this season, but his body of work is too sparse to hand him the job.

Whoever wins the job should be an upgrade over the turnstiles that have been manning the position over the last few years.

Eric Pears is a nice safety valve too, having started at left tackle for the Denver Broncos who use a similar zone blocking scheme. The loser of the battle is expected to shift over to the right side, where they should be an automatic upgrade to current starter, Cornell Green.

My prediction is that Mario Henderson will man the left and Khalif Barnes the right.


Defensive Tackle

When the Oakland Raiders barely addressed the defensive tackle position in the draft and free agency there has been a collective groan around Raider Nation. Fans are concerned with the inability to stop the run and the statistics give them credence. The defensive line has looked like Swiss cheese at times and in a division with LT, LJ, and rookie Knowshon Moreno being stout up front is vital.

When pressed on the lack of activity at the tackle area the Raiders have maintained that the bodies that occupy those positions are capable but need coached up. Of course the optimist in me says that last year

Tommy Kelly was coming off of knee surgery and the first year is never at full capacity. The fan in me says that Terdell Sands has lost weight and has overcome the despair of losing his mother. My rose colored glasses suggest that William Joseph is a first round pick who is about to break out.

My inner rationalizations say that the new coaches will put these talented, but poorly positioned tackles in the right places to stop the run. Ultimately we won’t know until they tee it up, but there are a lot of important battles along the defensive interior line and it will be worth watching to see if: Terdell fights to keep his job. If Tommy Kelly will justify his contract. If William Joseph can shed the label of bust. If Ryan Boschetti is more than just camp fodder.

If the optimists get this one right, Raider Nation will breathe again.

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