Jeff Risdon. 19th July, 2010 - 5:31 pm
2009 record: 5-11
Turnover Ratio: -13
Sack Differential: -12
Point Differential: -182
Coming In: QB Jason Campbell, LB Kamerion Wimbley, DE Quentin Groves, T Chris Cooper, DT John Henderson, RB Rock Cartwright, OL Daniel Loper, TE John Owens
Going Out: QB JaMarcus Russell, DE Greg Ellis, LB Kirk Morrison, RB Justin Fargas, WR Javon Walker, DT Gerard Warren, T Cornell Green, FB Oren O?Neal, LB Jon Alston, LB Isaiah Ekejiuba
Key Rookies: LB Rolando McClain, DT/DE Lamarr Houston, WR/RS Jacoby Ford, T Jared Veldheer
QB: One team?s trash is another?s treasure. Redskins fans couldn?t wait to get rid of Jason Campbell, yet Raiders fans quickly and correctly embraced Campbell as a major upgrade over JaMarcus Russell. That alone tells you just how awful the Russell experiment crashed and burned.
Campbell should really benefit from feeling wanted and fitting into a more vertical passing game. He?s coming off his best season, raising his completion percentage to a very respectable 64.5 and a career-best 20 TDs. Campbell also showed more patience in letting deeper routes develop and staying with his reads, which is sweet music to Al Davis? increasingly hairy ears. He throws a great deep ball with excellent touch, and his mobility is above average, able to extend plays and scramble for the occasional 10-yard scamper to keep the chains moving.
It?s not all hearts and flowers with Campbell, however. He has consistently struggled with consistency, using all sorts of throwing stances and often having poor footwork. His 15 INTs last year were not accidents, and he has had problems with holding onto the ball while being sacked. Campbell has never really developed a good feel for the rush either. Some of that stems from the almost freakish revolving door of offensive coordinators Campbell has played under, and Hue Jackson becomes the latest voice in his crowded ears.
Coach Tom Cable insists there will be a competition for the starting job, perhaps throwing a bone to Bruce Gradkowski, who stepped into Russell?s mess and performed gamely. Gradkowski is nothing more than a solid backup, but he wears that hat well and the team responds to him. His agility and fearlessness helped open up more of the offense, though his accuracy and lack of a real rifle arm limit what he can do.
RB: With the departure of Justin Fargas, it?s now ?put up or shut up? time for Darren McFadden. Thus far in his young career, McFadden has been quiet. Proving the rare pre-draft critics (I?m one of the few!) correct so far, McFadden has shown he runs tight and goes down on first contact far too easily. He?s also shown that if given a clear seam, he?s very difficult to catch and can make open-area cuts that do Barry Sanders proud. That has not been the case very often thanks in no small part to the O-line in front of him, but McFadden must run tougher and stronger with his feet, which tend to stop when he?s hit. He?s also had injury issues that dog his production, but the speed and vision are clearly there.
McFadden will share the spot with Michael Bush, and the duo form perhaps the most diametrically opposed RB package in the league. Where McFadden struggles between the tackles and upon contact, the beefy Bush relishes the pounding inside. At over 240 pounds, Bush runs with violent legs and low shoulders, churning for every inch and delivering blows as much as he absorbs them. Running behind the same line that McFadden averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, Bush netted 4.8 yards per attempt. He lacks instant acceleration and isn?t a great threat to bounce the ball outside, though he occasionally flashes some giddy-up (ask the Chiefs). It will be interesting to see how Coach Cable divvies up the carries, especially if McFadden continues to struggle. McFadden is clearly the more accomplished and dangerous receiver of the pair, and he remains a Wildcat threat as well. How much Hue Jackson decides to utilize McFadden in those capacities remains to be seen.
Rock Cartwright assumes the #3 back position, a role that he held in Washington for several seasons. Because Coach Cable is impatient with his RBs, he could see more carries than you might think. Fullback Luke Lawton might see a few carries as well, and his role expands with the release of Oren O?Neal. Because Lawton got busted for steroids and will miss the first four games, there is an open competition for the starting FB role in his stead. The Raiders do utilize the lead blocking FB more than most teams, so it?s not an insignificant battle.
WR/TE: There is fervent hope that a more accurate passer will really allow this young group to develop and blossom. It?s not unfounded hope, as there is some real potential here. Two 2009 rookies are the key.
Louis Murphy (4th round) greatly outshined fellow rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey (1st round), showing a real knack for getting open down the field. Murphy has great speed and made some difficult catches, though he did drop a few as well. DHB was a monumental flop as a rookie, though to be fair he and JaMarcus Russell never clicked and the jump in game speed overwhelmed the youngster, destroying his confidence. All the physical tools are there, and in early OTAs DHB has been the unquestioned star of the team, so there is real hope. He must improve his confidence and attention to detail, however. Both need loads of work on blocking, where it appears neither has ever been coached on even rudimentary skills.
Oakland still harbors high hopes for Chaz Schilens, who has great size at 6?4?, 225 pounds and good hands, but he shows little burst or quickness and has struggled to stay healthy. He makes for a solid possession receiver and red zone threat. Diminutive rookie Jacoby Ford brings blazing speed and great shiftiness, though he figures to make a greater impact as a return man. He offers potential on gadget plays and reverses as well. The odd man out appears to be Johnnie Lee Higgins, who showed some signs in 2008 but regressed last year. His world-class speed has never really translated to the field and he appears impervious to coaching. Nick Miller is small and lacks experience, but the coaches appear to like his versatility--he can return kicks and play in the backfield as a hybrid WR/RB.
Fortunately, the Raiders have an excellent tight end in Zach Miller, who led the team in receiving last year and would be a perennial Pro Bowler if he played on a better offense. Miller has the speed to stretch the seam and has wondrous hands and body control for a big man. His blocking is adequate, though he did improve at finding targets in space. Tony Stewart is the blocking TE and a good one, and he?s very good on special teams as well. He?s strictly a blocker, however; in 2 seasons in Oakland he has exactly 3 catches more than 10 yards downfield. The coaches like young Brandon Myers, who could see more time in base formations.
OL: This unit has largely struggled during the Cable era, a disappointment considering the coach made his name as a great OL teacher. It?s an unsettled picture other than LG Robert Gallery and C Samson Satele. Gallery has quietly become an above-average guard despite never living up to his lofty draft status at tackle. His feistiness and power run blocking have improved with his move inside, and he exerted more leadership last year, a trend the team hopes continues. Satele started slowly after coming from Miami, not understanding the pass protections real well. But he gradually improved as the season bore on, notably in his ability to get out in front of the run. He?ll never be great in pass protect, but as long as he continues to make the correct calls--a work in progress--he?s capable.
The rest of the line is open for battle. Massive Mario Henderson will be given yet another shot to nail down the left tackle position, which he has earned and subsequently squandered with indecisiveness and poor leverage. Veteran Erik Pears will challenge Henderson, but he?s even taller at 6?8? and plays as such. Neither candidate has enough lower body strength or drive blocking ability. Khalif Barnes could conceivably earn the left tackle spot, which he held capably in Jacksonville for several seasons, but the team prefers him on the right side. He missed all of 2009 with an injury. They are hopeful for a full comeback, because next in line are two greenhorn rookies, Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell. The duo might very well be the best starting tackle package in the league...in about 2014. Veldheer is more game-ready and at 6?8? is an imposing figure, but he?s making the jump from D-II Hillsdale and needs lots of work. Campbell was the OL star of the Combine with his unbelievable athletic gifts, yet the Raiders wisely waited for him to fall to the 4th round. He?s very raw but has shown early that he is very coachable and hungry to succeed. Cooper Carlisle started at RG last year and could do that again in 2010, but he is undersized and on the downside of a mediocre career. There is little depth inside, with Chris Morris the only notable body. Langston Walker will have to earn his roster spot, which will require marked improvement over his play from a year ago, where he was lead-footed in pass protection and didn?t use his size well.
DL: Few positional groups take more guff from fans than the Raiders defensive line, and that?s because there is great potential that seldom plays to it. There is fervent hope that a full season of Richard Seymour will help that issue, and his acceptance of the franchise tender makes that more likely. Seymour swallowed hard following his trade from New England and turned in a solid season in Oakland. He bounced all over the line as the coaches desperately sought a combination that worked. That seeking has led some observers to wonder if the team will shift to a 3-4 front, which certainly suits Seymour better. Expect some 3-man front looks at times, but the bulk of the time will be spent in the traditional 4-3, with Seymour likely stationed at LDE. He will need to increase his productivity (just 4 sacks and one forced turnover), but I anticipate a much better 2010 in Oakland from their standout lineman.
The other end figures to be young Matt Shaughnessy, who impressed with his motor and speed as a rookie. His four sacks all came in November or later, and he looked progressively more comfortable and confident as the year bore on. Shaughnessy will never be a great run defender--he lacks leverage and doesn?t get off blocks easily--but a modest increase in sacks and QB pressures, which I think is highly probable, makes him an effective end and a rising talent. Quentin Groves comes over from Jacksonville as the top reserve end, provided the change of scenery jump-starts what has been a highly disappointing career so far. The 2008 second round pick has just 2.5 sacks and 42 tackles in two years, and must show more determination and toughness. Rookie Lamarr Houston is an intriguing option at end as well, and his 2nd round selection lends credence to the 3-4 rumors. Houston is 280+ pounds but cat-quick, not unlike a young Seymour. Increasing stoutness against the run is a stated imperative, and Houston?s size should help in that regard. They?re hopeful he has the versatility to slide inside on passing downs to generate some interior surge, but that remains to be seen.
The tackles have been a sore spot for a long time, yet Oakland will once again trot out Tommy Kelly as one of the starters. Kelly is the most overpaid player in the league, getting $45M for being an adequate starter at best. If he can bring back some of his 2008 game, the entire defense figures to look better, but those 4.5 sacks and consistent penetration sure look like an anomaly with the rest of his career. He figures to be the leading candidate to play the nose in a 3-4, though veteran William Joseph is a little stouter. Joseph got beat out last year by Desmond Bryant, an undrafted rookie from Harvard who quickly won over coaches with his desire and attitude. He?s undersized but strong and fundamentally sound, and learned quickly with some mentoring from Seymour. Former Ohio State end Jay Richardson is a valuable reserve that can play both end and tackle. The team also appears high on Greyson Grunheim, and he will be given the opportunity to earn greater status this preseason.
LB: Perhaps no rookie defender faces more pressure than Rolando McClain. The Raiders took the Alabama slammer with the 8th pick of the draft and immediately dealt away incumbent starter and team leader Kirk Morrison. McClain is bigger and more menacing, though not quite as quick. Increasing size and hitting acumen were stated goals, and McClain should have no problem delivering the big hits and helping shore up a leaky run defense. He?ll be called upon to make all the defensive calls and do a lot more in coverage than he ever did at Bama, but I believe he will more than capably handle the job. He is my preseason pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The outside backers are also likely to be new, for the most part. Trevor Scott has usurped Thomas Howard on the right side, a result of more reliable tackling and better positional discipline. He?s also 2 inches taller and 20 pounds bigger, which helps with the mantra of ?size matters?. Newcomer Kamerion Wimbley takes over the other OLB spot, and he was brought in for his pass rushing skills. Though Cleveland fans will tell you he has been a major disappointment, his 15 sacks over the last 3 seasons aren?t really terrible numbers considering his situation. But he never developed into an impact defender with the Browns, often appearing mechanical and lacking aggression. He should get more pass rush opportunities playing behind Seymour, and he still has the great wheels. Wimbley is also one of the most intelligent guys in the league. I talked to a Browns teammate about Wimbley?s struggles, and he advised me that going against Joe Thomas in practice every day robbed Wimbley of his confidence. He will face no such talent in Oakland?s practices, so the manly vigor might flow once again.
Howard will likely get a lot of reps as a nickel LB, as he is pretty good in coverage and closes quickly on the ball with nice range. As long as he avoids blocks and shows patience, he?s a solid contributor. Howard is playing for his next contract and greener pastures elsewhere, so expect a motivated player. Sam Williams returns as a reserve, and has the size to play inside in a 3-4. Slade Norris will get more time on special teams with the release of Isaiah Ekejiuba. Rookie Travis Goethel could win reps if he fills the interior holes like he did at Arizona State.
DB: There is not a more physically impressive secondary in the league in terms of athletic ability. In actual football skills, however, Oakland rates in the middle of the pack. Nnamdi Asomugha remains an elite corner, though game tape reveals that offenses should probably throw at him a little more. His hand placement is second to none and he translates film work to the field impressively, seemingly always knowing the correct route and tendencies of the receiver. He will give too much away inside (somewhat by design) and isn?t as good with the ball in the air as advertised, but few can erase more of the field than Asomugha does on a consistent basis.
Opposite Asomugha is Chris Johnson (no, not that one). Johnson has his moments and can run with anyone, but is frustratingly inconsistent. He is so frequently targeted by teams avoiding Asomugha that his every mistake tends to get exacerbated, but he?s better than most fans give him credit for being. Oakland grossly overpaid to keep nickel man Stanford Routt in the fold, which implies that he will be given a chance to take Johnson?s job. Those sorts of forced competitions tend to end poorly for both guys, and the loser of that battle will almost certainly be miscast as the slot nickel back, a position where both have really struggled. Routt is a better tackler and is more likely to make a highlight play, but his footwork is sloppy and he guesses far too often. Behind those top three the depth chart plunges into some unknown waters. 5th round pick Walter McFadden, all 175 pounds of him, is the best bet as the dime back, though the Raiders have used Michael Huff as a hybrid CB/S in that role the past couple of seasons. Rookie 7th rounder Jeremy Ware is probably next in line, with Jonathan Holland moving back to WR and Joey Thomas appearing as nothing more than special teams fodder.
At safety, Oakland is in pretty solid shape. Tyvon Branch emerged as a tackling machine in his second season, all the more impressive considering he was drafted as a corner. The Raiders would like him to be more active playing the ball in coverage and forcing more turnovers, but they?re happy with his 7 games of double-digit tackles and his decent range. Hiram Eugene and Michael Huff essentially shared the other spot, and that division looks to stay intact. Huff finally started to live up to the promise of his first round draft status, showing much greater field awareness and more confidence in both coverage and making plays on the ball. He is the better cover man of the duo, but Huff continues to tackle with poor form and little thump. Eugene has superior in-the-box skills and sees the field well, but isn?t as athletic and doesn?t make plays on the ball in coverage. Huff has impressed observers this offseason, showing up thicker and more confidently mature, which bodes well for a breakout season from a player the Raiders have long needed to have one. Former Ohio Bobcat Mike Mitchell had his rookie campaign slowed by a hamstring injury, and he needs to have a strong training camp and preseason to get on the field more. He flashed the big-time hitting ability that so enamored Al Davis and is the most natural blitzer of the group, but his coverage skills are in need of major refinement.
Quite simply, the Raiders are the class of the league with their specialists. Shane Lechler is the best punter in the league and is arguably the greatest punter in NFL history. He is showing no signs of slowing down and is a legit game-changer with his ability to flip field position. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski still has his booming leg and has quietly improved his accuracy on 35 to 45-yard field goals. Few can match his combination of length and hang time on kickoffs, and he has transformed into a valued locker room asset. Challenger Swayze Waters is nothing but camp fodder, albeit with a great name.
Rookie Jacoby Ford will be given every chance to become the primary return man for both punts and kicks. He has the stature and quickness of an elite returner and fared quite well at Clemson in that capacity. The coverage units are fair enough, with reserve LB/long snapper Jon Condo earning Pro Bowl status, leading all long snappers in tackles.
3 Keys to the season
1. Just how much of a lift does Jason Campbell give the team at the QB position. He can?t be any worse than JaMarcus Russell, but how much better he will be is an open question.
2. Will the young talent that Al Davis risked high draft picks upon yield the results the owner expected? Darrius Heyward-Bey, Darren McFadden, Rolando McClain, Michael Huff, Mike Mitchell and Matt Shaughnessy all have potential to be very good impact players, but have collectively proven very little. If they gel and develop this year, this is a playoff team.
3. The run defense. Last year teams ran at will on the Oakland defense, able to protect leads and dictate the game to the Raiders. Much of the offseason defensive focus was on getting bigger and tougher, but that must translate to the field quickly.
There is genuine optimism in Oakland heading into this season, and for the first time in years it?s not entirely unfounded. As they showed late last year, when they get even mediocre QB play, they?re good enough to compete, and Jason Campbell is a major upgrade. There are still questions about both lines, and a lot of the great athletes need to become better football players in order for the Raiders to make a big jump. Even so, I like the direction this team is heading and I also like the schedule. All of their pre-bye week (Week 10) games are winnable; the Raiders just need to go out and take care of business. That has been a lot easier said than done recently, and breaking out of that mentality will likely take some growing pains and cost them a couple of victories. I like the Raiders to finish 7-9, snapping the 7-year run of double-digit losses, with an eye for a playoff run in 2011.