Raiders improved but how much?

The final cuts have come and gone for the Oakland Raiders and all other 32 NFL teams.

The Oakland Raiders open their 2004 season eager to put the 2003 nightmare of a 4-12 season behind them. Oakland visits the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday. The Raiders made changes galore during the off season -- players, coaches and the general manager. Oakland will be different but will it be better? It's hard to imagine the Raiders being worse but how much better is open to question.

The West Coast offense is out and the power-running game/vertical passing game is in under new head coach Norv Turner, who replaced Bill Callahan. The offense has the potential and its share of questions.

The Raiders addressed the offensive line needs by drafting tackle Robert Gallery and center Jake Grove and signing free agent guard Ron Stone. Oakland has experienced depth at quarterback behind its line in Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins and Marques Tuiasosopo.

Fifth-year man Jerry Porter is now the lead horse opposite Jerry Rice after the Raiders released Tim Brown. Porter can be the deep threat the Raiders have lacked recently but can he stay healthy and consistent? Which Gannon will the Raiders see -- the 1999-2002 edition or the Kurt Warner-like meltdown of last season?

Turner likes the power-running game and is not one to advocate the committee backfield approach but are any of the current backs on the Raiders roster lead horse material? Can the combination of Tyrone Wheatley, Amos Zereoue and Justin Fargas be an effective replacement for Charlie Garner? Wheatley is the closest the Raiders have to a workhorse capable of logging 15-20 carries but he has not performed in that capacity since 2000.

Most importantly, the Raiders need a healthy line. Left tackle Barry Sims was the lone starter not to miss a game due to injury. Gannon's season-ending shoulder injury and the line's rash of health problems helped last year go to hell in hand basket at 4-12.

The Raiders underwent a major facelift on defense as only four starters return from last season. Oakland also has a new coordinator in Rob Ryan, who replaced Chuck Bresnahan.

The current changes look good on paper but how soon can the rebuilt Oakland defense mesh? For the Raider's sake, let's hope by no later than early October. The run defense and pass rush were atrocious last season and figure to be better in 2004. Nonetheless, the changes also come with gambles.

The Raiders addressed their defensive line needs by signing tackles Ted Washington and Warren Sapp along with end Bobby Hamilton. Oakland also welcomes back a healthy tackle in John Parrella. Defensive end Tyler Brayton figures to be much better in his second season.

Which Washington are the Raiders getting? The difference maker that helped New England win the Super Bowl or the one that will get injured? Which Sapp is Oakland getting? The dominant one of his first six NFL seasons or the one that has declined the last three? The linebacking corps that was average to begin with got weaker by losing Eric Barton to free agency.

Can Ray Buchanan, a convert from cornerback, be a top-flight free safety in place of Rod Woodson? How soon can cornerback Charles Woodson be ready after a 33-day contractual holdout? Can Phillip Buchanon finally learn that discipline is just as important as big plays.

Then, there is the Raiders special teams. Oakland can kick the ball and return kicks but will it be any better at covering them? That is a big reason why Bob Casullo is no longer the special teams coach. Casullo was notorious for defending himself by saying the Raiders special teams was the sixth best in the NFL. Uh, those who witnessed the Raiders cover kicks knew better.

Joe Avezzano, who replaced Casullo, is a three-time winner of the Special Teams Coach of the Year and will have little tolerance for players lacking discipline. Very few teams can surpass the Raiders kicker-punter combination of Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler. Oakland also boasts a dynamic punt returner in Phillip Buchanon and should be formidable in kickoff returns with Doug Gabriel and/or Carlos Francis.

Extra linebackers on the roster should solve part of the coverage problem. Better tackling and discipline, however, need to happen as well.

The Raiders are no doubt rebuilt but into what? The changes bring optimism but a lot has to go right fir the Raiders to reach the playoffs. The NFL is full of rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags stories. In a nutshell, Oakland will be a much better club but will just miss the postseason. No worse than seven wins but no more than 11.

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