Inside slant

It is growing close to decision time on cornerback Charles Woodson and no matter what the Oakland Raiders elect to do, there are no guarantees the path they choose will be the wise one.

The deadline for deciding is Feb. 22.

The first option they have is to declare him their exclusive franchise player for the second year in a row. It prevents him from going to another team but it guarantees him at least $10.5 million in salary, a 20 percent increase from the $8.78 million he earned last year. Should the average of the top five cornerbacks in the league come to more than that after all accounting is complete, then that would be the payout.

A second choice is they may choose to cover themselves from overpaying by dropping the exclusive tag. That way they could have the option of matching any outside offer he gets or accepting two first-round draft picks.

A third would be to depreciate -- give him the transition tag, which would assure him of the average of the top ten players at his position.

A fourth would be to do their best to sign him to a new long-term, and no doubt expensive, deal.

A fifth would be to sign and trade. There has been much speculation of a swap of Woodson to Minnesota for wide receiver Randy Moss. Although so far there seems to be more smoke than fire on that front, the reality is the sensibility of it from Oakland's point of view.

Jerry Porter plans to test the free agent waters. Moss is scheduled to make $7.25 million next year. That's a potential savings of $3 million for the Raiders if Woodson goes in that scenario.

Finally, Oakland could merely say enough is enough in dealing with the demands of the Poston brothers and release him -- let them see if another team is willing to pay him as much as he believes he is worth.

Radical though that may seem, there is growing sentiment in the Bay Area that Woodson has not progressed in seven years as a Raider and that he has priced himself out of the market.

As a cover corner, he has not made his mark as a major playmaker, registering just 16 interceptions in seven seasons. The last time he returned an interception for a touchdown was in his second year, 1999.

His most noteworthy contributions have been in the area of tackling -- which makes him the anti-Deion Sanders. There isn't a surer tackler around and despite missing the final three games of the season, he finished third on the team with 73 tackles this past season. That was the highest number he had accumulated in a season to date.

However, paying more than $10 million for an accomplished downfield tackler would seem to qualify as an exorbitant outlay.

The question is whether that is the way the Raiders are thinking. If so, they are not saying so in advance of the Feb. 22 deadline to declare franchise and transition players.

NOTES, QUOTES

Pete Carroll's gain is Norv Turner's loss ... and Al Davis' headache.

The Raiders have lost their quarterbacks coach, Steve Sarkisian, to the two-time NCAA champion USC Trojans, who in turn lost their offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, to the NFL.

The interesting part of the move was that Sarkisian, who was only with the Raiders for one season, was not hired to replace Chow, under whom he had worked at USC prior to joining the Raiders.

Chow's title went to Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian's was hired as "assistant head coach."

According to a Raider source, Sarkisian's departure (he had a year left on his contract) was not exactly greeted with smiles in the club hierarchy. Although he had a slow start, Kerry Collins made strides in the second half of the season while working with Sarkisian. Had he been hired to replace Chow, it would have been one thing, but to receive a generalized title as assistant head coach makes it look like meager advancement in Oakland circles.

If the Raiders even considered trying to block the move, they would have realized there was nothing they could do. A year earlier, they made a preliminary move to try to block tight ends coach Jay Norvell from joining deposed Raider coach Bill Callahan at the University of Nebraska. They let it go when it became clear they could be unable to force a coach who wanted to leave to continue working with them.

The Raiders hired John Shoop, who was Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach last season, to replace Sarkisian.

--More intrigue in the coaching ranks involving titles.

Aaron Kromer, who succeeded Callahan as Raiders offensive line coach when Callahan was named Oakland's head coach in 2002, rejoined the man who hired him in the first place -- Jon Gruden. Tampa Bay hired Kromer as a "senior assistant" without a specific job title. Bill Muir, Gruden's offensive coordinator, remains as Tampa Bay's offensive line coach.

A week later, the team announced the hiring of Jim Colletto who, 17 days earlier, had been fired as line coach of the Baltimore Ravens in a major shakeup of Brian Billick's offensive staff.

The moves were related. Kromer's departure, unlike that of Sarkisian, was not one that rankled the Raiders brass. Kromer's contract was in its final year and according to a club source, he had been given permission to seek another job.

Although under Kromer the Raiders allowed only 30 sacks (fifth in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt), they were not happy with the progress of their running game. There, the Raiders ranked last in the NFL and their leading rusher, Amos Zereoue, gained just 425 yards -- the fewest yards by a Raider leading rusher in the club's 45-year history.

Colletto's resume indicates he will do better. Twice during Colletto's six years with the Ravens, the team set new rushing records.

"Jim brings an attitude and mentality about the run game that will help us," coach Norv Turner said. "What Jim has done in Baltimore speaks for itself. He's helped the Ravens produce one of the top running attacks in the NFL."

-- If history is any indication, the Raiders' difficulties rushing the passer may be a thing of the past.

Their most recent hire was that of Keith Millard as assistant defensive line coach. Millard joins the club after four years with the Denver Broncos. Under his tutelage the Broncos were fourth and sixth in the NFL in sacks the last two years.

As a player, Millard still holds the NFL record for sacks by an interior linemen, having collected 18 in 1989 when he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year playing for the Minnesota Vikings.

As a bonus, he also happens to be a local product of Foothill High in Pleasanton.

"It's an organization that I've followed since I was a kid," Millard said. "My first pro football game was (attending) a Raider game."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The three top teams in the NFL in rushing were Atlanta, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets. All played deep into the playoffs.

But what grabs the Raiders' attention is that the No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 rushing teams are everybody else from their AFC West division -- to wit, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego.

The Raiders finished No. 22 in rushing defense last year. However, in six games against the AFC West troika they gave up 986 yards, more than 164 yards a game. Against the other 10, non-AFC West, opponents, Oakland gave up 102.6 yards a game.

That pace would have made them No. 8 in the league against the rush. Meanwhile, that 164-yard pace achieved against AFC West competition would have resulted in a No. 32 ranking -- 2,629 yards.

In a rushing division, the Raiders (No. 32 in rushing offense themselves) have no choice if they want to get better -- they must run and stop others.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES:

1. Running back. The Raiders finished last in the league with 1,295 yards and if QB Kerry Collins is to be successful, the Raiders need a back that can make the defense bite on play action. Look for the Raiders to augment in free agency but to draft a running back in the early rounds. They would prefer an inside runner with some pop to a breakaway threat -- in other words, using an Auburn analogy, more of a Ronnie Brown than a Cadillac Williams.

2. Defensive end. In 15 of their games, the Raiders had just 18 sacks, which made it easy to forget that in the 16th game they had seven (against Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe). Since the team ranked 30th in pass defense with a flock of former first round picks playing DB, the need for pressure up front is paramount. Here, they may have more interest in a free agent with proven rush skills than take a gamble on a draftee.

3. Linebacker. They could rely on that pass rush push from a gifted outside linebacker provided they stay with the 3-4 that didn't materialize as was expected in '04.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Charles Woodson; WR Jerry Porter; DE Bobby Hamilton; RB Amos Zereoue; RB J.R. Redmond; FB Chris Hetherington; S Jarrod Cooper; SS David Terrell; OT Chad Slaughter.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: SS Marques Anderson; LB Tim Johnson.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: WR Ronald Curry; S Keyon Nash; QB David Rivers; WR John Stone.


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