Oakland Raiders 2008 Preview Report

Russell

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 3rd

2007 Record: 4-12 (3rd AFC West)

Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (2nd year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: JaMarcus Russell Ridiculously strong arm allows him to stretch the field and make plays on the move. Obviously, has plenty of maturation to do as a leader and decision-maker.

RB: Justin Fargas Coming off first 1,000-yard season and playing in a new three-year contract. His best work may actually be in pass-blocking.

FB: Justin Griffith Good ballhandler, but Oakland doesn’t need that from the FB position. Must hold off the more powerful though less alert Oren O’Neal.

WR: Javon Walker** Serious knee problems have ravaged him in recent years. Also, contemplated retirement early in camp. If he’s right, he’s great. But big if.

WR: Ronald Curry Three blown Achilles have mitigated much of his once-intoxicating athleticism. That said, still an effective contributor. Must have fewer drops in ’08.

TE: Zach Miller Led all NFL rookies in receptions (44) and yards (444) last year. Still, the Raiders need to get him involved even more in the passing game.

LT: Kwame Harris** Huge bust playing for the team across the bay. Tom Cable likes his potential in the zone-blocking scheme.

LG: Robert Gallery Another huge bust–until he found a home at G, where the pass-blocking demands are much lighter. Mobility makes him the team’s only stable offensive lineman.

C: John Wade** Veteran plug-in guy who may get pushed by perennial fringe starter Jake Grove.

RG: Cooper Carlisle Lacks strength even for this finesse blocking scheme. Problem is, Raiders don’t have anyone to replace him with.

RT: Cornell Green Coming off ACL surgery but should keep his job considering that Paul McQuistan is clearly a backup and second-year wonder Mario Henderson is said to lack fire.

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QB: Andrew Walter His presence makes the health and development of JaMarcus Russell 10 times more important.

RB: Darren McFadden* Highly -publicized playmaker who will be phased into the offense as a multidimensional Marshall Faulk-type weapon.

WR: Drew Carter** Three ACL injuries in his first four years marred his career in Carolina. Has the speed to chase Russell’s long balls, but can’t do much else.

WR: Johnnie Lee Higgins Second-year pro who is more of a track star than football player at this point. Lane Kiffin admitted that he should have played more in ’07.

TE: John Madsen Essentially a WR in a three-point stance. Raiders will use Tony Stewart in short-yardage situations.

OL: Jake Grove Can play G or C. Seems to be on the starting bubble every year. Strong in pass protection but lacks balance as a run-blocker.

Defense

LDE: Derrick Burgess Avoided voluntary activities over the offseason because he wants a new contract. But sack totals have dropped from 16 to 11 to 8 over the past 3 years.

DT: Tommy Kelly Missed 9 games and virtually all offseason with an ACL injury. Still, Al Davis gave him an astounding 7-year, $50 million contract to stay and replace Warren Sapp.

DT: Terdell Sands Effort and energy were up and down (mostly down) last season. Deaths in the family likely had something to do with it. Extremely powerful; expect him to bounce back.

RDE: Jay Richardson Second-year player and already one of the best run-defending DE’s in football. Needs to elevate his pass rush, even if he won’t ever be a double-digit sack artist.

SLB: Robert Thomas Oakland‘s most fervid run-stopping LB–and he’s only average in this sense.

MLB: Kirk Morrison Serenaded with praise for his pass defense, but lacks awareness and assertiveness against the run.

WLB: Thomas Howard Speed and agility allow him to jump the underneath routes (6 picks, 2 TD returns last year). But, like Morrison, must improve drastically in rush defense.

CB: DeAngelo Hall** Bona fide playmaker who will be a top 5 CB as soon as he stops getting beat by double moves.

SS: Gibril Wilson** Plays with energy and range, particularly against the run. Also brings rare winning experience to the table.

FS: Michael Huff In line for a breakout season now that he has more talent around him. Adequate tackler, excellent man-defender (experience at CB). Must start generating turnovers.

CB: Nnamdi Asomugha Recorded eight picks in ’06 and rarely got challenged in ’07. He’ll see more balls come his way now that Hall is across from him.

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DL: Gerard Warren It’s 50-50 that he’ll play hard. If he does, it’s then 50-50 that he’ll play well. And this, ladies and gentleman, is what makes a former No. 3 overall pick a bust.

LB: Sam Williams Great size (6’5″, 260) and serviceable in traffic. But, thanks to a rash of injuries, has played in just 36 games his first 5 years.

NB: Stanford Routt Not the best tackler, but adequate in terms of quickness and agility. Should do well in a nickel role.

Key Players Acquired

WR Drew Carter (Car)

DE Kalimba Edwards (Det)

CB DeAngelo Hall (Atl)

OT Kwame Harris (SF)

LB Ed Hartwell (FA)

DT William Joseph (NYG)

DE Greg Spires (TB)

QB Marques Tuiasosopo (NYJ)

C John Wade (TB)

CB Michael Waddell (Ten)

WR Javon Walker (Den)

S Gibril Wilson (NYG)

Key Players Lost

DL Tyler Brayton (Car)

DB Chris Carr (Ten)

DE Chris Clemons (Phi)

QB Josh McCown (Mia)

C Jeremy Newberry (SD)

WR Jerry Porter (Jax)

RB Dominic Rhodes (Ind)

DT Warren Sapp (retired)

S Stuart Schweigert (Was)

OT Barry Sims (SF)

CB Fabian Washington (Bal)

Al Davis went on another spending spree. Of the players he brought in, only Hall and Wilson are untainted. And both came at a very hefty a price. Hall signed a seven-year deal worth as much as $70 million. Oakland also had to ship an ’08 second-round pick and ’09 fifth-rounder to Atlanta. Wilson got six years, $39 million. Together, more than $40 million was guaranteed to the two DB’s. Edwards, Harris and Joseph all underachieved at previous stops. Walker and Carter have each had three major knee operations. Spires and Wade have aged.

Of the players lost, only Sapp will truly be missed. Washington and Schweigert became expendable when Hall and Wilson arrived. Sims was slowing down. Porter wore out his welcome. They’ll miss Clemons’s pass-rushing prowess. They’d miss Brayton’s too, if he had any.

2008 – Oakland Raiders

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

1

4

Darren McFadden

RB

Arkansas

4

100

Tyvon Branch

CB

Connecticut

4

125

Arman Shields

WR

Richmond

6

169

Trevor Scott

DE

Buffalo

7

226

Chaz Schilens

WR

San Diego State

Al Davis was high on McFadden. He sees the electrifying Razorback as an amplified version of Charlie Garner. Garner, you may recall, had over 900 yards rushing and receiving for this team back in the ’02 Super Bowl run. Oakland‘s second-round pick went to Atlanta as part of the DeAngelo Hall trade. Their third-rounder was given to New England last year, just so the Raiders could move up and get OT Mario Henderson at pick No. 91. (So far, Henderson hasn’t developed.) Branch will play S, which he did a little in college. He’s said to be a harsh hitter. Knee surgery caused Shields to miss 10 games his senior year; the Raiders love surgically repaired WR’s (see Ronald Curry, Javon Walker, Drew Carter). Scott began his collegiate career as a TE. Schilens never caught more than 35 passes in a season with the Aztecs.

Oakland Raiders 2008 Preview Report

No, they’re not rebuilding. And they’re not improving. Wherever the “right track” may be, they’re at least two time zones away from it. Young franchise quarterback JaMarcus Russell? Doesn’t matter. Star rookie running back Darren McFadden? Moot point. Thirty-three-year-old head coach Lane Kiffin? Irrelevant.

Regardless of whose on the roster, the Oakland Raiders are near the nadir of the NFL. They’ve been so bad since their ’02 Super Bowl loss that not only has their motto “Just win, baby” gone out of style, but making fun of the motto has gotten old as well. It’s almost embarrassing. And we all know whose fault it is.

It’s sad to see Al Davis’s franchise wallow in decadence. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Raiders are one of the iconic teams of the NFL. And Davis is one of the iconic characters. The man has done more for pro football than perhaps anyone alive. And for this, we owe him.

That said, football takes place in the here and now. Davis concurs, as his vision is perilously near-sighted. Problem is, it’s never encountered a mirror. Davis should have relinquished his managing control long ago. But, despite reports of failing health, the 79-year-old continues to call the shots.

Those shots have included five coaches in the past eight years. This past offseason, Davis reportedly tried to make it six. Incensed upon learning that Kiffin pondered the possibility of returning to the college ranks, the owner drafted a letter of resignation for the fresh-faced coach to sign. Kiffin refused. The mess that unfolded from this would have been a public relations nightmare, if not for the public’s already low regard for the franchise (or the franchise’s utter disinterest in PR).

Firing Kiffin would have also been expensive. Unable to issue the death penalty, Davis instead sentenced the coach to solitary confinement. Kiffin’s decision-making power is close to nil. On draft day last year, he was able to convince Davis to trade Randy Moss, but he wasn’t able to dissuade him from drafting Russell. Insiders say that Kiffin has never thought Russell to be the right quarterback for his system. There were also concerns that Russell would be difficult to sign. Indeed, Davis wound up getting rocked in negotiations, giving the LSU kid nearly $32 million in guarantees after a rookie season-wrecking holdout extended into the second week of September. (P.S. Moss wound up doing okay after getting shipped to New England, which doesn’t help Kiffin’s pull.)

Kiffin doesn’t even have a say over his own coaching staff. He and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan agreed to part ways in January. Ryan was all set to take a job with the Jets. When he went in to thank Davis for his four years in Oakland, the owner blew a fuse and vetoed the move, forcing Ryan to finish out the final year of his contract. Kiffin has since referred to Ryan as the “de facto defensive coordinator.”

This past spring, it was reported that Kiffin wanted as many as five assistant coaches removed, but Davis declined because of aversion to paying off their contracts. Speaking of contracts, Kiffin is essentially in the final year of his. Technically, two years remain on the deal, but the final season is not guaranteed. (Raiders sources have said that Davis never gives a head coach job security past two years.)

The problems aren’t just with the disjointed, unstable coaching staff. Oakland’s roster is blemished too. When it comes to acquiring players, the Raiders are like a slick-haired millionaire who only dates strippers. Davis has a predilection for expensive, high-maintenance guys with striking bodies. Basically, he collects athletes.

And it doesn’t matter if the athlete is damaged. Last season, Davis drafted running back Michael Bush in Round Four, despite the rod in Bush’s once-broken right leg. Bush hasn’t played football in two years, though he’s expected to contribute in ’08.

This past offseason, Davis gave $16 million in guarantees to wideout Javon Walker after the ornery seventh-year pro was released by rival Denver. Walker has missed 25 games the past three years because of multiple knee surgeries. He’s a super talented athlete, but there’s no way any other team would have guaranteed him more than $10 million. His motivation is questionable as well. After struggling early in training camp, Davis had to talk the receiver out of retiring.

Walker isn’t the only oft-injured receiver. Free agent pickup Drew Carter has had three knee operations Davis sees in Carter a 6’3″ target who can fly. Receiver Ronald Curry has suffered three blown Achilles tendons in his career. But the ex-Tarheel quarterback and starting shooting guard–that’s ACC basketball–is a mesmerizing athlete. (In fairness to Curry, he has recovered from his Achilles problems and is a fairly productive player.) Even fourth-round rookie wideout Arman Shields is still recuperating from ACL surgery.

None of Davis’s investments in injured receivers compares to what he did on the other side of the ball. Needing to replace Sapp, Davis turned to Tommy Kelly, an underrated fifth-year pro who had spent a majority of his career stopping the run as a defensive end. Kelly missed the final nine games last season with a torn ACL, but coaches believe that, once healthy, he can be one of the best three-technique tackles in the league. So, Davis re-signed Kelly:.for $50.5 million over seven years. It was the richest contract ever awarded to a defensive tackle. Kelly himself was surprised. And no, it’s not just a back-loaded deal. There’s more than $18 million in guarantees. This makes the zero-time Pro Bowler with 13 career sacks Oakland’s unofficial lottery ticket. Kelly won’t have had a lot of time to fine-tune his inside mechanics, as he spent all offseason rehabbing his knee.

By the way, this wasn’t Davis’s largest investment. The owner traded a second-and fifth-round draft pick to Atlanta for cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall then received a market-setting seven-year, $70 million contract ($24.5 million guaranteed). Hall might be worth that kind of money, but only if he tag-teams with burgeoning sixth-year stud Nnamdi Asomugha (who humbly signed a $9.765 franchise tender in July after seeing less proven players secure long-term contracts).

Hall’s salary detracts from the overpayment issued to former Giants safety Gibril Wilson (six years, $39 million, $16 million guaranteed). Wilson can play, but not at the Bob Sanders-Troy Polamalu level that his compensation suggests.

To Davis’s credit, at least he’s trying. And sacrificing. The Raiders aren’t exactly generating massive revenue these days. If they ever had home games on TV, you’d notice the waves of empty seats at dumpy McAfee Coliseum. Granted, the Raiders have improved attendance since taking control of their own ticket sales. But that’s about the only success that their totalitarian system has brought recently.

Offense

Whether Lane Kiffin likes it or not, his offense is commandeered by second-year flamethrower JaMarcus Russell. Kiffin’s hesitancy about Russell certainly does not pertain to the quarterback’s athleticism. At 6’6″, 270 (rumors of Russell’s weight ballooning to 300 over the offseason are, almost certainly, samples of great online fiction writing), Russell moves with remarkable litheness. He is not a scrambling quarterback but he has no trouble voyaging outside the pocket. His arm strength–which, at face value, is the best in the game–enables him to fire darts off balance and from all locations.

This, however, is what gives Kiffin reservation. Russell walks the fine line between being a playmaker and building bad habits. Though some players can successfully toggle that line for an entire career (see Favre, Brett), most cannot (see else, everyone). The Raiders need Russell to learn how to manage an offense and dissect a defense. After skipping his senior year at LSU and holding out his first training camp, Russell essentially comes into 2008 as a rookie. Whatever growing pains he endures, the Raiders will experience with him. After all, there’s absolutely no reason to put backup quarterbacks Andrew Walter or Marques Tuiasosopo on the field.

The Cowboys drafted Emmitt Smith in Round One a year after No. 1 overall pick Troy Aikman arrived. The Colts selected Edgerrin James in the first round one year after taking Peyton Manning with the first overall pick. Does this mean anything? The Raiders hope so. After tabbing Russell last season, they used their No. 4 overall pick on Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, arguably the highest touted player in the ’08 draft.

The long-term plan is for McFadden to be a lethal Swiss Army Knife in the back pocket of Russell. The Raiders believe that in McFadden’s explosive burst and flexible athleticism there exists the second coming of Marshall Faulk. Kiffin, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (who leaves the play calling duties to the head coach) and running backs coach Tom Rathman are putting a lot on McFadden’s plate. But given that the rookie doesn’t even turn 21 until late August, the portions are small.

When the season kicks off, McFadden will work out of a variety of backfield formations, as well as in the slot. He’ll do all this in a second-string role (at least early on). Sixth-year veteran Justin Fargas, fresh off his first 1,000-yard season, remains the starter. Fargas finally became patient enough to leverage his Andretti-like speed behind Oakland’s zone-blocking front line. Given that he is excellent in blitz pickup and has decent hands, it’s possible that Fargas will maintain a third-down role in 2008. In this case, he and McFadden could be on the field together.

The Raiders have packages that include McFadden and second-year runner Michael Bush in the same backfield. Bush has not carried the ball since Louisville’s 2006 season opener, but if fully healthy, he can be a 247-pound battering ram. His contributions are significant because the only other backfield power on the roster is Justin Griffith and Oren O’Neal, both of whom are fullbacks.

Oakland got away from a power-run image when offensive line coach Tom Cable was brought in last season. Despite not having the proper personnel to work with, Cable immediately implemented a zone-blocking scheme that sky-rocketed the team’s rush ranking from 29th to sixth. Cable was able to install two new linemen over the offseason, though he still has, to put it bluntly, second-rate talent to work with.

The first newcomer is left tackle Kwame Harris, a disappointing top-round pick from San Francisco. The mistake-prone Harris has wavering confidence, but Cable believes the 26-year-old possesses the mobility to get to the second level. The second newcomer is 33-year-old center John Wade. Showing unexpected strength, Wade is able to move defenders and create good angles in the ground game. He is a below average pass-blocker, however, which is why you could see Jake Grove starting again at some point.

Lining up between Harris and Wade is Robert Gallery. Once a non-delivering left tackle, Gallery is now settling into his second season as a dependable guard (it’s his fifth year overall). He is much better on the inside where he doesn’t have to cover as much ground in pass protection. Opposite Gallery is Cooper Carlisle, a grossly underpowered guard, but one who is well-schooled in the intricacies of a zone. Carlisle should be coming off the bench, but the Raiders don’t trust backup Paul McQuistan.

McQuistan actually filled in at right tackle last season after Cornell Green tore his ACL. Green is back, though in what form remains to be seen. Last year’s third-round pick Mario Henderson was thought to be a project. Sure enough, he was inactive for 15 games as a rookie. The hope was that Henderson could push for a starting job this year, but coaches were unimpressed with his fire during offseason activities.

The Raiders aren’t going to get much run-blocking help from their tight ends. Zach Miller improved his blocking precipitously as a rookie, but he’s still a cut below average. John Madsen is practically a wide receiver. The Raiders could look to veteran Tony Stewart or converted lineman Fred Wakefield, but both players are only usable in obvious running situations.

The wide receiver situation is pretty clear: it comes down to guys staying healthy. Ronald Curry, Javon Walker and Drew Carter should all be ready for Week 1. How effective they’ll remain for the entire five month-stretch is up in the air. Curry must drop fewer balls this season. Walker will have to stay patient as he works himself into the offense. Carter must diversify his game. He won’t have anyone pushing him, however, as No. 4 receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins only caught four passes as a third-round rookie last year.

Defense

Rob Ryan’s unit will fail for a second straight season if it doesn’t get better against the run. Last year, the Raiders surrendered an astonishing 4.8 yards per carry. Ten runners posted 100 yards against them.

Improvements from the front line are necessary, though a bulk of the onus is on the linebackers. Because Mike ‘backer Kirk Morrison and Will ‘backer Thomas Howard are superb pass defenders and in their fourth and third year respectively, there is a misconception that they’re rising young stars. The fact of the matter is, Morrison lacks awareness against the run, and he’s vulnerable when teams grind between the tackles. Howard is fast in all senses, but he only makes the predictable plays. If he has to read and react, he goes missing.

Strongside linebacker Robert Thomas is Oakland’s heartiest front seven run-defender, but he comes with too many limitations. Thomas plays because backups Sam Williams and Ed Hartwell can’t stay healthy.

One guy who could do a lot for the Raiders run defense is defensive tackle Terdell Sands. Powerful as an earthquake and big as a tectonic plate (6’7″, 335), the eighth-year veteran from Chattanooga is poised to rebound from a lethargic ’07 season marred by personal tribulation (deaths in the family). The Raiders gave Sands a $4 million signing bonus as part of a new contract. Such largesse isn’t bestowed upon players who don’t have the character to rebound from a bad year.

This marks an ironic segway to backup Gerard Warren. You may remember Warren as the third overall pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2001. Today, you know him as the journeyman with the yo-yo intensity level. Warren will work ahead of another underachieving first-round pick, William Joseph (formerly of the New York Giants). Both players are gifted, but don’t be surprised if both end up behind 11th-year veteran Greg Spires (a defensive end who is capable of lining up inside). Spires is playing in a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum.

None of these guys are slated to start alongside Sands, of course. That job is reserved for Tommy Kelly. Kelly almost seems destined to become the Chan Ho Park or Juwan Howard of pro football, as his mega contract creates unreasonably high expectations. But that’s not to say Kelly isn’t a good player. Rob Ryan’s talk of him being the best three-technique in the league is hyperbole (Tommie Harris is untouchable in this department), but when healthy, Kelly is an agile force who amplifies his strength with outstanding leverage.

Defensive end Jay Richardson is a phenomenal run defender who is being asked to contribute more against the pass. Richardson is only in his second season, so he should develop off the edge. But he’ll never be a first-rate pass-rusher. The Raiders know this–that’s why they signed light but fast Kalimba Edwards and drafted tight end-turned defensive end Trevor Scott. Don’t expect either to make a big splash in 2008.

Derrick Burgess has seen his sack totals drop the past two years, but having just turned 30 in August, it’s too soon to declare that the former Eagle is slowing down. Burgess will have to post double digit sacks before getting the long-term contract he desires.

You may have noticed that the Raiders enjoy placing big expectations on players. They must love having Nnamdi Asomugha and DeAngelo Hall working together. Ryan has said that these two form the best cornerbacking tandem in the league–and that it’s not even close. Let’s see how they perform first.

People get excited about one-two cornerback punches, but the fact of the matter is, 90 percent of them never materialize. What happens is offenses have to pass the ball one way or another, and usually both corners wind up getting challenged more than they’re accustomed to. This makes for more interception opportunities, but it also makes for more passes given up. Cornerbacks earn their living off of reputation as much as anything. When passes start getting by them, their reputation gets jolted. And so does their confidence.

With Hall’s arrival, Stanford Routt slides into a more fitting nickel back role. If Routt struggles (aside from mediocre tackling, there’s no reason to think he will), the Raiders may want to consider sliding free safety Michael Huff into the slot against three-receiver sets. Huff is a fine defender in a back pedal. It’s playing downhill that is key for him. Drafted seventh overall in 2006, he has not yet lived up to expectations. But increased weight (he’s up to 202) and better players around him should prompt a breakout year.

Gibril Wilson brings much-needed energy to the strong safety position. The depth behind both safeties is very good. Eugene Hiram is a hard hitter and veteran Greg Wesley is not bad in coverage.

Special Teams

Two of the strongest-legged men in America wear the silver and black: kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. Janikowski is erratic from long distances (he was just 13/21 from over 40 yards last season), but he can at least attempt field goals from upwards of 60 yards. Lechler averaged an astonishing 49.1 yards per punt last year. His NFL-leading 41.1 net average sent him to his third Pro Bowl.

Return specialist Chris Carr was allowed to leave over the offseason, which means Johnnie Lee Higgins takes over. Lee Higgins must be on guard–he was too loose with the ball on punts last year and could be replaced by DeAngelo Hall. Darren McFadden can also return kicks.

Bottom Line

There is a lot of young talent on this team, but it’s compromised by chaotic leadership. The Raiders should be building for the future, but they have an owner whose management style forces coaches to win right away. Will it work? It hasn’t for five years.

Myth Buster

Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are rising star linebackers

Morrison and Howard might be the best pass-defending linebacker duo in football, combining for 10 interceptions last season. But a linebacker’s primary job is to stop the run. Morrison and Howard didn’t do that.

The two ranked first and second on the team in tackles, but that’s only because somebody had to make a stop. Oakland’s run defense ranked 31st overall, giving up a dreadful 4.8 yards per carry. All this despite having a front line that featured a still-vibrant Warren Sapp, backside containment master Derrick Burgess and young run-stopping ace Jay Richardson. (Defensive tackle Terdell Sands did not play up to par, but being 6’7″, 335, he still took up space.) In other words, where were Oakland’s linebackers?

Morrison and Howard both lack awareness against the run, and neither is great in traffic. If the Raiders want to get better defensively, their twentysomething-year-old linebackers must step up.

Open Thought

I know the “next-to-the-airport MacAfee Coliseum” isn’t the nicest venue, but can’t someone at least install brighter lights there? There have been complaints about the lighting on the outside of the stadium, but what about the inside? Compared to other stadiums, McAfee Coliseum looks dim on television. Don’t expect this problem to get fixed anytime soon. After all, the Athletics have no money, and the Raiders hardly play on primetime these days.


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One Response to “Oakland Raiders 2008 Preview Report”

  1. Alf says:

    The Raider Nation is looking promising this year…at least when you compare this year’s team to last 2 seasons, they are clearly looking to the future with their offense with the acquisition of Russell last year and both McFadden and Bush this year. The D is looking as strong as ever even if it’s only pre-season. I’ll be picking them to win in my nfl football pool each week at MyOnlinePool.com. Check out the site if your into fun and football.