Raiders Receivers: Cupboard Not Bare

Believe it or not, the Raiders are looking better than usual in the receiving game. There aren't any marquee names in the group, but what the team does have are a few very solid receivers and a few more who are looking to make a bigger name for themselves in the 2010 season. S&BI takes a look at the state of the Raiders' receiving corps and their prospects in the upcoming season.

Despite an eighth straight season with a losing record and the foreboding prospects of a ninth, it's not difficult for a dedicated fan base such as the famed Raider Nation to find something to get excited about.

Last season, the Raiders' potentially lethal running trio of Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden and Michael Bush had fans murmuring in bars and online message boards of the Silver and Black, three-headed monster in the backfield.

And while those expectations were dashed by injury, inconsistency and generally poor offensive play, it's not likely that the running game's shortcomings will discourage the Raider faithful and their boundless and eager enthusiasm.

At the top of the list of things to get excited about for the 2010 season might be the young and talented Raiders receiving corps. Led by stalwart tight end Zach Miller, the Raiders figure to have their most balanced and consistent group of pass catchers in recent memory.

And although the team faces quite a bit of uncertainty at the quarterback position, whoever eventually winds up passing the ball will have plenty of options to throw to come the start of the season.

In all likelihood, the top target for a third straight year will again be the dependable Zach Miller. Now entering his fourth season as a pro, Miller's play and his numbers have improved in every season, and despite doing so without much fanfare outside of the Bay Area, he has established himself as one of the top tight ends in the league.

When he entered the league in 2007 as the Raiders' second round pick, the biggest knock on Miller was that while he was physically gifted and an athletic pass catcher, he had a lot of work to do as a blocker.

While he's still got plenty of work to do in that regard, he's made some real strides in three years and is considered a capable blocker at this point.

Where Miller has excelled the most is in the passing game. Miller has led the Raiders in receiving the past two seasons, and there is no reason to suggest that he will not match or exceed those numbers this season.

Remember, Miller has put up those numbers without great quarterback play, and as tight ends are often the favorite target of most quarterbacks, especially the young, wide-eyed variety, a good chunk of pass attempts will be directed towards him.

Really, the only thing that might stand in Miller's way of replicating last year's numbers is injury or the emergence of one of the Raiders' young and talented wide receivers.

There will be plenty of opportunities for the likes of Chaz Schilens and Louis Murphy. Those are the two guys you would consider as the front-runners for the starting wide receiver spots. While Darrius Heyward-Bey has gotten most of the limelight, it's Schilens and Murphy who are the best equipped to assume a larger role in the Raiders' offense.

As teams will be more focused on Miller, Schilens and Murphy will get more opportunities to shine. Schilens was sidelined for half of last season with a somewhat serious injury he suffered in the preseason (broken bone in his left foot), and so his development was slightly delayed.

Still, despite playing in only half the team's games, Schilens ranked third on the team in receptions, yards received and touchdown catches, and given a healthy start to the season, Schilens' combination of size, speed and skill should make him the Raiders' top wide receiver in 2010-2011.

Louis Murphy was arguably the most pleasant surprise last season. Understandably, Murphy came in with far less hype than fellow rookie Heyward-Bey, but was clearly more ready to contribute at the pro level.

While Murphy might not possess the same sort of athletic package as Heyward-Bey, he is clearly good enough and far more polished as a pure receiver. Murphy ranked second on the team in receptions (34) and yards received (521) while leading the team in touchdowns received (4) and average yards per reception (15.3). Not bad for a guy who was a fourth round pick.

Initially, Murphy was looked at as a very good third or fourth wide receiver, but he is clearly second on the depth chart and should be ahead of Heyward-Bey and Johnnie Lee Higgins.

Last season was a tough one for Heyward-Bey. Not only did he have to deal with the pressures of being a surprise pick at seventh overall, but an offseason hamstring injury set him back more than he or the team would like to admit and that severely hampered his deep threat ability.

The team is anxious to see what a healthy, and now more experienced, Heyward-Bey can do. While Schilens and Murphy might be safer options as starters, the staff wants to give Heyward-Bey every opportunity to be the team's starting flanker.

The biggest concern of Heyward-Bey is his hands. Although he posses a great size-to-speed ratio, that's all for not if he is unable to haul in passes. True, deep ball accuracy has been an issue for Raiders quarterbacks, but there were times last season when it just looked like Heyward-Bey was timid when reaching out and extending for passes thrown to him, even if he had relatively clear lanes.

Johnnie Lee Higgins enters his fourth year still trying to establish himself as more than a one-trick pony. As great as he has been in the return game, Higgins himself has expressed his desire to become a bigger part of the offense as a receiver.

While he may not be as sure-handed as either Schilens or Murphy, Higgins is fair enough in that regard. Also, Higgins might be a slight notch below Heyward-Bey in terms of speed, but he's the best Raiders receiver in the open field.

That is, Higgins might be best utilized in the slot or running routes underneath the coverage, thereby giving him more open field to work with. Seems simple enough, but at this point, the Raiders are still sorting out their top four talents at wide receiver, and it's all a matter of which two or three rise to the top. Higgins might be a guy who has to make most of the opportunities he gets if he wants to move up the depth chart.

Todd Watkins was retained and he is serviceable in his role as a fifth receiver. The Raiders signed wide receiver and return specialist Yamon Figurs from the Ravens, but in four years, Figurs has caught only three passes and he is specifically a special teams weapon. The same goes for Nick Miller who was impressive last offseason as a rookie, but was unable to contribute due to injury.

Earlier, there was some Internet chatter that the Raiders might be interested in Terrell Owens, but those rumors were completely unfounded. Although the Raiders' wide receivers are young, there really isn't a huge need to add to the current stable (especially a distraction like Owens). Even though the Raiders lack a marquee name, Miller, Schilens and Murphy have proven themselves capable while Higgins is another viable option as a very good fourth receiver. Heyward-Bey has some ways to go before he proves himself worthy of being a starter, but coming in healthy would be a step in the right direction.

Given the situation at quarterback, the numbers might not be there for the receivers, and really, you'd like youngsters like Schilens, Murphy and Heyward-Bey to develop with a quarterback. That being said, the pieces are there to develop, and if the team can hold on to these guys for a while and prevent them from leaving if they should really break out, the making of a great receiving corps is in the works.

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