Raiders find defensive threat in camp

Last year the Raiders struck gold when they signed free agent defensive end Derrick Burgess, who went on to lead the NFL sacks. Oakland is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice and rookie linebacker Thomas Howard just might be able to provide it.

Howard, the team's second-round draft pick out of Texas-El Paso, was penciled into the starting lineup before the Raiders hit the field for their first training camp practice. Since then, he's impressed the coaching staff and onlookers with how quickly he's picked up the offense and, more importantly, how quickly he's been getting to the quarterback when blitzing.

''You noticed that, huh?'' Howard said with a smile in between practice sessions Thursday. ''If you're good at something, the coaches here are going to put you at a spot where you can succeed.''

If there's something Howard is good at, it's blazing around the field. He clocked a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash prior to the draft and his ability to cover receivers -- not just tight ends -- downfield made Howard a valued commodity that the Raiders didn't want to let go by.

In the few days since camp began, Thomas has been flying all over the field. Three times he blazed past tackle Chad Slaughter to get to the quarterback during the first day of practice, a trait he's continued to flash ever since.

His sudden jump from wide-eyed rookie to starting weakside linebacker has had rippling effects throughout the defense. It allowed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to bring back the 4-3 as the team's base formation, something Oakland had hoped to do but couldn't a year ago when a lack of linebacking prevented it. It also forced Ryan to shuffle his starters around a bit. Kirk Morrison, who led the Raiders in tackles a year ago as a rookie, was moved inside to play middle linebacker. With Sam Williams back after three consecutive injury-shortened seasons, that left veteran Danny Clark -- a starter for Oakland since 2004 -- as the odd-man out.

In exchange, though, the Raiders have one of their quickest linebacking units since they called Los Angeles home.

As for Thomas, he's just soaking it all in and enjoying the view. He and Morrison have become fast friends and the two regularly talk before, during and after practice, with Morrison acting as a mentor to his rookie teammate.

''Thomas is an outstanding football player,'' Oakland head coach Art Shell said. ''We just want to keep working with him and give (him) a chance to grow as a football player.''

* The Raiders had a big scare in the afternoon when running back LaMont Jordan and center Jake Grove went down with what looked to be knee injuries minutes apart from one another. Both men were attended to by team trainers and Grove was able to return to practice while Jordan stayed as a spectator. Grove was hurt when someone rolled up the back of his knees during a pileup; Jordan was injured when he banged knees with another player.

''The trainer said (Jordan) is fine so that's what I'm going on,'' Shell said.

* Wide receiver Jerry Porter remained absent from practice with a calf injury.

* Fullback Zack Crockett was held out of Thursday's workouts due to a back condition.

* An MRI test revealed wide receiver Carlos Francis has a partial hamstring tear and will be sidelined 1-2 weeks.

* Defensive back Ray Washington also did not practice. Shell said Washington was hurt on the same play Francis was.

* Four referees from the NFL attended practice, as is the league's normal practice.

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