Raiders training camp outlook: Safeties

         One story in a series, looking at position breakdowns for the Oakland Raiders, who arrive for training camp in Napa, CA, on July 24. Today – a look at safety:

When talking about ageless wonders on the Oakland Raiders, many people first think of 40-year old wide receiver Jerry Rice.

Raiders' starting free safety Rod Woodson continues to fend off "Father Time" equally well. Oakland remains solid in the secondary in large part because it chose to bring Woodson back for a 17th NFL season. Woodson figures to be a slam-dunk Hall-of-Fame choice when his career concludes and enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2002 after signing a free agent contract from Baltimore.

Woodson's value goes beyond his eight interceptions last season. Woodson's leadership skills were a big reason why Oakland became an above-average defensive unit.

Projected starting strong safety Derrick Gibson, however, faces a crucial season. Gibson, a 2001 first-round draft pick, has flashed occasional brilliance but has had problems staying healthy. That reason is enough to believe that Oakland may wind up adding another safety. The Raiders released Anthony Dorsett, who played well in Gibson's absence, in a cost-cutting move. It's not out of the question for Oakland to resign him.

Eric Johnson, Keyon Nash and rookie Sideeq Shabazz (seventh round, New Mexico State) will battle it out for the remaining safety spots. Johnson, while not guaranteed a roster spot, would appear to have the edge because his speed and enthusiasm are two valuable assets to Oakland's special teams unit.

Nash, a sixth round draft choice last season from Albany State, does not face an easy climb but is a hard hitter. Special teams would likely be his ticket to a roster spot. Shabazz comes with a reputation for being physical but he would be more of a long-term project.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached via e-mail at vdad7@yahoo.com


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