Oakland Raiders: Competition Could Lead to New Faces on Defense

Ray YockeContributor IAugust 6, 2009

DENVER - NOVEMBER 23:  Linebacker Kirk Morrison #52 of the Oakland Raiders defends against the Denver Broncos during week 12 NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on November 23, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. The Raiders defeated the Broncos 31-10.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

At first glance, the 2009 Oakland Raiders' defense looks nearly identical to the one that finished 2008.

Oakland’s defensive roster remains virtually unchanged, a surprising development for a team that finished 27th in the NFL in overall defense.

But the unit that takes the field this season could look remarkably different, thanks to the environment of competition instilled this offseason. A defense plagued by missed tackles and open holes along the line is expected to be more aggressive this season, both on and off of the field.

While the Raiders didn’t bring in many new faces in response to last year’s poor defensive performance, returning players are feeling pressured just the same. John Marshall has replaced Rob Ryan as the defensive coordinator, and he’s made it clear that outside of the team’s superstar cornerback, there are no sacred cows.

Some of the team’s most recognizable defenders are now in dogfights for starting positions, and may be facing their final chance to start for Oakland. Like The Bobs in Office Space, Marshall and head coach Tom Cable are forcing the team’s defenders to reapply for their own jobs.

The Silver and Black figure to blitz more under Marshall than they did with Ryan, which should improve a pass rush that has been sporadic the past few years.

Derrick Burgess was brought in several years ago to harass opposing quarterbacks, but his holdout led the team to sign free agent Greg Ellis. Burgess has lost nearly all his leverage, and wouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot even if he reported to camp tomorrow.

Even the Raiders’ top tackler is not immune to the threat of being replaced. Middle linebacker shouldn’t rank high on Oakland’s list of concerns, yet Marshall freely admits the spot is open to competition.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Despite averaging 128 tackles for Oakland the past three years, Kirk Morrison is now fighting for his job with Ricky Brown, an undrafted fourth-year player with a total of 58 career tackles.

Oakland's defensive line has provided little resistance to opposing runners in the past few years, and Morrison and outside linebacker Thomas Howard have often acted as Oakland’s first line of defense.

Unless Morrison is still hurt from making so many tackles, or has some obscene tackling incentive written into his contract, it’s hard to see how the Raiders could consider replacing the former Bishop O’Dowd star.

Amidst all the shakeups on defense, one player has remained bulletproof. Not only is Nnamdi Asomugha’s position safe, he signed a contract extension over the winter that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player at the time.

Respect for Asomugha’s skills throughout the league has earned him the 1994 Deion Sanders treatment, as quarterbacks virtually ignore his side of the field.

For Chris Johnson, that should mean plenty of opportunities to establish himself as a top-level corner. Because Asomugha acts as an island, Johnson will receive extra safety help while covering teams' second receivers, which should free him up to make plays on the ball.

Kevin Smith, Eric Davis, and numerous others made the most of a similar situation playing next to Sanders in the '90s, and Raiders fans don’t need to be reminded of what that opportunity meant for Larry Brown.

While Asomugha and Johnson have their starting jobs wrapped up, the spots behind them are up for grabs, involving two players whose draft position merits special attention from Raider Nation.

Former first round pick Michael Huff is fighting to win back the free safety spot from Hiram Eugene, and this could be Huff’s last chance to make it as a starter in Oakland. Huff has disappointed thus far, but he can take solace in the fact that he’s at least competing for a starting job, unlike draft classmate Matt Leinart.

The Raiders hoped they had a playmaking safety in Huff, and that same hope has now been placed upon rookie strong safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell has apparently been doing his best Jack Tatum impersonation in training camp, and he could be starting by the time the Chargers roll into town to open the season.

As Oakland’s offense continues to search for its identity, the defense won’t have much margin for error in 2009. And with San Diego coming to visit in Week 1, the Raiders don’t have much time before their decision to renew last year’s personnel is put to the test.

The Oakland Sports Examiner: New columns every Tuesday and Thursday.