Looking for a leader

Warren Sapp's decision to retire at the end of last season not only robbed the Raiders of one of the most critical pieces on defense, it also left a serious void of leadership inside the locker room. SBI's Michael Wagaman takes a look at some players who could and should step up to fill that role.

· Quarterback JaMarcus Russell: A lot is being asked of the second-year pro, not the least of which is taking over the reigns of an offense that has been downright terrible the past three years. As a quarterback, it's also natural to assume Russell will be the team leader.

While Russell has done a good job of juggling both jobs fairly well this offseason, drawing praise from teammates and head coach Lane Kiffin in the process. That's to be expected in the offseason but the real pressure will come when the games start counting.

Rich Gannon, the last Oakland quarterback to have any sustained success, was a driven, hard-working player who gained his teammates respect by his work ethic on the field and in the film room. Gannon had little tolerance for players he felt didn't put in the same type of effort. But Gannon was able to back up his thoughts with his performance on the field.

If Russell and the Raiders get off to a good start, it's pretty safe to assume his role as team leader won't be questioned. But if the offense stumbles or Russell struggles, assuming the title of leader could be a tough thing for the young QB to do.

· Linebacker Kirk Morrison: Entering his fourth season Morrison has developed into one of the AFC's best middle linebackers but it's not been on sheer talent alone. Morrison's work between games is what has enabled him to take his game to the next level and is the primary reason defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has entrusted Morrison to make alter calls and make whatever changes on the field he feels necessary.

In the past, though, Morrison has deferred to Sapp and defensive end Derrick Burgess when it came to taking the reigns of leadership. At the same time, he gained the respect of his fellow defensive players -- Sapp and Burgess included -- which makes Morrison a natural for the job.

How much influence he can have outside of the defense is tough to determine, though. Rare is the player who can command an entire locker room but if there's anyone on Oakland's roster that could, Morrison is the guy.

· Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha: The franchised cornerback -- who has yet to sign his offer sheet -- would seem to have the same type of MO for the job of leader as Morrison. Both are well-respected by their teammates and around the league, both are considered among the elite at their respective positions, and both are determined students of the game.

Asomugha is more soft-spoken and seems more laid back than Morrison. While no one doubts his credentials, it's difficult to imagine Asomugha getting in the face of a teammate or younger player when the need arises. It doesn't seem to fit his style. Not that Morrison does or has, but you expect it more from a linebacker than a defensive back.

Then again, that approach could make Asomugha the consummate leader. Either way, he or Morrison would be worthy of the call.

· Cornerback DeAngelo Hall: Uniquely different than either Morrison or Asomugha, Hall brings a combination of attitude and swagger that the Raiders have been missing for some time. While that has sometimes got him into trouble with teammates and opponents, Hall's cockiness is also what has helped him become one of the better young cornerbacks in the game.

While he might not be your typical type of leader, Hall's brashness will inevitably draw the spotlight in his direction. As long as he performs, that's not a bad thing. It will help keep the focus and pressure off the other players, something good leaders do.

Then again, if the defense goes south or Hall's mouth gets him in over his head, the whole thing can go wrong real quick.

· Fullback Justin Griffith: Few fullbacks can command the attention a leader needs, primarily because of the nature of the position. Anymore, fullbacks are like offensive linemen -- blue-collar blockers who play mostly in anonymity.

But Griffith seems to be different. He's considering one of the best at his position, which gets him respect points right off the top. He's also willing to pull aside a younger player and offer pointers and advice, even if that someone might be after his job.

Asking Griffith to assume a huge leadership role might be too much, again, because of his position. But if a group of players emerges to handle the job rather than just one or two, Griffith definitely needs to be involved.

· Wide receiver Javon Walker: The Raider signed Walker to bring some experience and, yes, leadership to a very young receiving corps but his recent trouble in Las Vegas might make that a difficult sell.

It's not what happened to Walker. That is still a very big unknown and it would be incredibly unfair to pass judgment until all the facts are known. And it's not about whether Walker did or did not give a website a false statement about what did happen to him.

It's that Walker should have known better. He was with Darent Williams the night the talented young Denver Broncos cornerback was gunned down, a night that reportedly began with the spraying of champagne on a crowd at a nightclub in a similar way that Walker allegedly sprayed a crowd with champagne earlier in the evening when he was attacked.

If he's indeed healthy by the time training camp opens -- which is what the Raiders are expecting -- Walker can still make his case for being a leader by explaining to his younger teammates the importance of being careful in every situation and helping them to learn from what happened to him in Sin City. That might be more important than anything he does on the field.


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