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NFL team preview: Oakland Raiders

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INSIDE SLANT

A year after a tumultuous training camp -- which included the daily struggles of JaMarcus Russell and allegations of assault and domestic assault against head coach Tom Cable -- the Raiders spent a serene month in the wine country to sort it all out.

Russell is gone, released after three years and zero progress toward validating his status as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 draft. Cable kept his coaching job but relinquished offensive coordinator and play-calling duties, concentrating on the overall picture.

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The general feeling in Oakland was one of optimism, and not just because the more professional Jason Campbell had replaced Russell at quarterback. The Raiders went after some specific areas of concern, the rushing defense in particular, and appear to have one of the their better draft hauls in years.

Things are better.

Better enough to contend in the AFC West, a division that has one clear favorite in San Diego and three question marks?

Cable thinks so. And he's not afraid to say it. He even had T-shirts made for the players which say "Champions. Those shirts also proclaim: "We are going to win the AFC West and then go after the Super Bowl."

Cable's rationale?

"I said it to them three times before I had the shirt made, twice in the spring and once during training camp," Cable said. "Have to believe it. We put the pieces together this year.

"We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and go win a championship, and to do that you've got to win the division."

While the optimism is nice, and while the NFL's 31st-ranked passing game has been upgraded in terms of the quarterback and the scheme with Hue Jackson running the unit, there were at least nagging concerns.

Yes, the Raiders may have done enough to stop a streak of seven straight years with 11 or more losses -- an NFL record.

But in terms of the division and the Super Bowl, the Raiders looked more like a team pursuing a date with a .500 record if things go well rather than a team making reservations for Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6, 2011.
It's unclear if the Raiders achieved Cable's goal of becoming the physical team he wants. Training camp had two brief live sessions with players brought to the ground -- an extremely rare occurrence for the Raiders -- but for the most part Napa provided mild, moderate weather and players were kept upright and healthy.

So while Oakland added rookie first-round draft pick Rolando McClain to start at middle linebacker and second-round pick Lamarr Thomas at defensive end, and upgraded its linebacking corps in terms of size, some of their recent issues with run defense were still a problem in the preseason against both Chicago and San Francisco.

The running game that fell to No. 17 last year depends on the tandem of Michael Bush and Darren McFadden running behind what was a shaky offensive line in 2009.

Bush fractured a thumb in the third preseason game, McFadden didn't play until the third preseason game because of a hamstring pull, and when he did there was no evidence to suggest he'll be breaking tackles and be the kind of runner he was in college at Arkansas.

It's not known how long Bush will be out -- or even if he'll be out -- but it was a sobering reminder of the attrition at the position.

As for the offensive line, the only challenge to starting roles came when third-round pick Jared Veldheer, a 6-8 rookie from small school Hillsdale, moved from tackle to center and started against San Francisco in place of Samson Satele, who had an ankle injury.

No starters on a poor line were challenged -- not a good sign in terms of depth or competition. Sure enough, Mario Henderson surrendered a sack to Travis LaBoy, which left Campbell with a stinger, although Cable said he expects his quarterback to be ready for the opener.

A third area of concern is an extremely inexperienced corps of wide receivers. The most reliable and explosive playmaker is Louis Murphy, a fourth-round pick last year out of Florida who caught 34 passes for 521 yards and four touchdowns.

Chaz Schilens, a rangy seventh-round pick, is the best possession receiver -- he had 29 catches in eight games last year -- but is seldom healthy. He's had two foot surgeries and an arthroscopic knee procedure within the past year.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 overall pick who caught just nine passes in 11 starts last year before injuring an ankle, has shown signs of progress but not to the point where he looks like a consistent game-changer.
Until then, tight end Zach Miller remains the focus of opposing defenses. He has the most reliable hands on the team with 166 receptions in three years as a starter.

COACHING: Tom Cable, 3rd year, 3rd with Raiders (9-19).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 5-11 (third in AFC West).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record: 7-9 (second in AFC West).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Veteran tight Tony Stewart, a nine-year veteran and a Raider for the last four years, was released, which could be good news to veteran John Owens or perhaps an indication Oakland will not carry three tight ends this season.

In some power formations that call for three tight ends, the Raiders have been using tackle Eric Pears and occasionally guard-tackle Khalif Barnes for extra bulk rather than having another receiving threat to go with Zach Miller and Brandon Myers.

PLAYER NOTES

--FB Marcel Reece has blocked well enough to complement his considerable pass catching skills and move to the forefront of the race to be the Raiders' fullback.

--DT Desmond Bryant has an elbow injury which the Raiders hope will be well enough to play by the season opener.

--WR Chaz Schilens' knee procedure has a three- to six-week recovery time, meaning he could be out not only for the season opener against Tennessee, but subsequent home games against St. Louis and Arizona.

--CB Stanford Routt has played much better in preseason games than training camp practices and has given himself a chance to unseat Chris Johnson as the starting left cornerback.

--DE Matt Shaughnessy played almost the entire game against the 49ers with Jay Richardson out with minor knee surgery.

--G/T Allen Smith, an undrafted free agent from Stanford who was struggling to get time with even the third team, was released.

--WR Paul Hubbard, who has battled hamstring issues throughout training camp, was released.

--FB Chane Moline, who had fallen behind Marcel Reece, Luke Lawton and Manase Tonga, was released.

--TE Eric Butler, signed after being released by St. Louis on Aug. 19, was released.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/8, MLB Rolando McClain, Alabama -- Although he's had some preseason struggles, McClain's grasp of the defense and professional attitude has coaches and teammates convinced he'll make an immediate impact.

Rd. 2/44, DE Lamarr Houston, Texas -- A tackle for his last two seasons in college, Houston is versatile enough to move inside but his primary attribute as a rookie is a snap-to-whistle (and sometimes beyond) mentality that has seen him scuffle with teammates.

Rd. 3/69, C/T Jared Veldheer, Hillsdale -- He'll be a starter at some point this year -- maybe even as a Week 1 center. The Division II product from Hillsdale hasn't been overwhelmed by the jump in talent.

Rd. 4/106, RG Bruce Campbell, Maryland -- The physical gifts of Campbell are undeniable and have shown themselves on occasion as he simply overpowers opposite with his strength and explosion. But he's so raw he whiffs too often for anyone to be comfortable.

Rd. 4/108, WR Jacoby Ford, Clemson -- The added bonus on the Raiders' yearly combine flash (4.28 in the 40-yard dash in Indy) is that he was a better receiver and route runner than expected and that he can compete to return kicks.

Rd. 5/138, CB Walter McFadden, Auburn -- One of the coolest customers in the rookie class, McFadden could find his way on to the field in some defensive packages before the season is out. Adept at covering as a slot corner.

Rd. 6/190, LB Travis Goethel, Arizona State -- It's been tough going in that he's an inside linebacker on a team that drafted Rolando McClain, but Goethel has been very good on special teams and hasn't taken a backward step on defense -- maybe the biggest surprise of the class.

Rd. 7/215, CB Jeremy Ware, Michigan State -- Ware has a fearless aggression that gets him in trouble and may draw some flags for holding or pass interference, but he's excellent at run support and is not intimidated.

Rd. 7/251, S Stevie Brown, Michigan -- For a guy who played his last two years at Michigan as a linebacker, Brown showed an ability to be around the ball from Day 1 and had interceptions in his first two preseason games.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jason Campbell. Backups -- Kyle Boller, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt Brennan.

Campbell immediately added stability and a professional nature to the Raiders after being signed just in advance of JaMarcus Russell's release. Known for being overly conservative with the Redskins, Campbell has taken to the Raiders' philosophy of taking shots downfield and has been more mobile than advertised. Gradkowski had to prove himself all over again after minor surgery on both knees as well as a torn left pectoral sustained weight lifting. He provides energy and an instant lift -- ideal for a backup. Boller was steady and error free as a more stationary backup competitor. Brennan showed an ability to instantly complete passes but competition looks too steep.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Michael Bush, FB Luke Lawton. Backups -- Darren McFadden, Rock Cartwright, Michael Bennett, FB Marcel Reece, FB Manase Tonga.

Bush was the Raiders' most consistent runner the past two seasons, with his 589 yards and 4.8 yards per carry average leading the team. Adept at running in the fourth quarter to control the clock, Bush has authored the last three 100-yard rushing games. Lawton is the Raiders' most experienced fullback, but he will miss the first two games on suspension for violating the league policy on performance enhancing drugs. In the meantime, Reece, an explosive receiver still learning as a blocker, could supplant him. McFadden remains a disappointing scrimmage runner who has battled nagging injuries (turf toe, knee, hamstring) ever since he arrived but has unexploited skills as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Cartwright and Bennett are both worthy No. 3 candidates, with Cartwright having the edge as a special teams player and Bennett as a scrimmage runner. Tonga hopes his blocking can secure a spot.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Zach Miller. Backups -- Brandon Myers, John Owens.

Miller leads the Raiders with 166 catches over the past three years, and the only thing preventing him from elite status is being on a winning team and not scoring enough touchdowns (he has seven in his career). The Raiders have worked diligently at looking for Miller in the red zone. Myers has a skill set similar to Miller, although his hands aren't quite up to that standard. Owens has flashed some receiving skills during training camp but faces long odds.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- SE Louis Murphy, FL Darrius Heyward-Bey. Backups -- Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jacoby Ford, Todd Watkins, Nick Miller, Yamon Figurs.

Murphy is the Raider most likely to get into the end zone at any given time but still has a propensity for dropping easy passes and losing his cool, although he's worked hard on the latter shortcoming. Heyward-Bey packed on about 15 pounds of muscle, was more comfortable and enjoyed some very good practice sessions -- a big departure from a rookie season that seemed to be a constant struggle. Schilens, the only receiver with the kind of jump-and-catch skill set that would be ideal for a move-the-chains player, can't stay healthy long enough to maximize his potential. Higgins had a poor 2009 season both receiving and as a return specialist after taking ferocious hit in Week 1 and again in Week 13. Ford had a quadriceps injury that delayed his progress in camp, but he could surface as a return specialist and occasional receiver. Watkins has survived the bubble for the past two years and is competing again. Miller and Figures are smallish receivers who will have trouble sticking with Higgins and Ford around.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Mario Henderson, LG Robert Gallery, C Samson Satele, RG Cooper Carlisle, RT Langston Walker. Backups -- G Bruce Campbell, C/G Chris Morris, G/T Khalif Barnes, T Erik Pears.

Henderson has been the pet project of Cable for three years running and faces a make or break year. It wasn't a good sign when his man sprinted around Henderson and gave Jason Campbell a stinger in the preseason. Gallery is the Raiders' best all-round lineman and endured a season from hell (appendectomy, broken fibula, back surgery) during which he played only six games. Satele couldn't beat out Chris Morris to start the 2009 season and was being challenged this year by Veldheer, a Division II rookie and a tackle by trade. Carlisle's job as an experienced veteran will be in part to mentor Campbell to someday take his job. Walker resurfaced in Oakland last year and got a chance to start when the Raiders moved away from an exclusively zone-blocking system. Morris is your classic fill-in at center and both guard spots. Barnes is learning to play guard although his heart remains at tackle. Pears has been mistake prone and most effective as an extra blocker on running downs.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Richard Seymour, NT Tommy Kelly, LE Lamarr Houston. Backups -- DT John Henderson, DE Jay Richardson, DT Desmond Bryant, DT William Joseph, DE Chris Cooper.

Shaughnessy had four sacks while learning as a rookie third-round pick last year and showed enough that the Raiders released Greg Ellis, a productive but aging veteran, to make room in the starting lineup. The big change this year is Seymour, who started at right end last year, has moved inside to three-technique and will only play outside on occasion, although he'll probably be move occasionally to create mismatches. Kelly was so embarrassed by his single sack last year he lost 35 pounds and has shown more fire than at any time since he arrived. Houston's future maybe inside as a three-technique, but for now, the plan is to line him up over a tight end and help win the line of scrimmage. Henderson is still being evaluated to see how much of a help he can be against the run after paying eight years in Jacksonville. Richardson has hit a plateau as a base end and missed the end of camp after minor knee surgery. Bryant last year's undrafted free agent surprise out of Harvard, remains in the defensive rotation. Joseph has been moved on and off the roster as needed. Cooper's strong preseason game performance gives him a chance to return to the team that drafted him.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Kamerion Wimbley, MLB Rolando McClain, WLB Trevor Scott. Backups -- OLB Quentin Groves, MLB Travis Goethel, OLB Thomas Howard, OLB/MLB Ricky Brown, MLB Sam Williams.

Wimbley has made a smooth transition from a 3-4 strong-side linebacker to 4-3, showing both the capability of holding the edge, and moving to rush end as a nickel rusher. He even defended Chicago's Greg Olsen 20 yards downfield against the pass. In training camp, McClain was better against the pass than expected. He's not a blow-up specialist vs. the run, choosing to split blocks and play quickness rather than power. Scott, a converted rush end, also plays nickel end and his pass coverage skills remain in question as a base weak-side linebacker. Grove has some explosiveness to his game and is willing to play special teams. Goethel, in any other year, would be a candidate to be a surprise starter. Howard is a displaced former starter who will play in passing situations unless he's traded or cut. Brown and Williams are both favorites of the owner and are good special teams players, with Brown being more useful as a middle and strong-side linebacker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Nnamdi Asomugha, LCB Chris Johnson, SS Tyvon Branch, FS Michael Huff. Backups -- CB Stanford Routt, S Stevie Brown, CB Walter McFadden, CB Jeremy Ware, S Mike Mitchell, S Hiram Eugene.

Asomugha has been a lonely man on the right side who is lobbying hard for the chance to occasionally shadow the opposition's top receiver and play occasionally from the slot, where he can blitz on occasion. There were some indications the Raiders would listen to him. Johnson is trying to fight off Stanford Routt to start opposite Asomugha. Johnson signed a lucrative contract two years ago with a $4 million signing bonus, Routt got a first-and-third round tender despite being primarily a nickel back. Branch led all NFL defensive backs in tackles, in part because the Raiders had a deficient front seven. But he's an intriguing talent who has both coverage and hitting skills who could develop into a solid player. Huff finally played at something approximating a first-round pick last year as a single-deep safety but has endured a tough preseason in terms of missed tackles and bad angles. McFadden and Ware are interesting talents, McFadden more of a finesse coverage corner, Ware playing more aggressively. Mitchell is useful in nickel and dime packages in the box because he plays as physically as a linebacker. Eugene's days could be numbered with the influx of youth.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Sebastian Janikowski, P Shane Lechler, LS Jon Condo, KOR Rock Cartwright, PR Johnnie Lee Higgins.

Janikowski and Lechler were the highest-paid kicking specialists in the NFL last year and both played like it. It was easily Janikowski's best season, missing just one kick inside 45 yards. Lechler flirted with Sammy Baugh's all-time NFL gross punting record before finishing at 51.1. Condo joined the two kickers as a long-snapper. He's not only been perfect in his specialty, but has the ability to go down and make the tackle. Coverage and returns were almost as bad as the kickers were good.

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