It's been an uncharacteristically good offseason for the Oakland Raiders.
Normally at this time of the year, Raider fans are looking for just about anything to get their hopes up for the upcoming season, despite the usual presence of questionable draft picks, lopsided trades, and exorbitant contracts given out to unworthy players.
But there really hasn't been much of that going on this offseason, as the Raiders have done their due diligence in making some rather crafty, and safe, moves. Perhaps it's due to the impending uncertainty of the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, as most NFL owners have resorted to playing it safe in the free agent market. But it might also be realization, on the part of Al Davis and company, that after the worst seven-year stretch in the franchise's history, something had to be changed.
True, it might be far-fetched to assume that the infamously staunch Al Davis would be moved to change his approach by any little thing, but seven seasons of zero playoff appearances, only 29 wins, and five different head coaches might just do the trick.
And if there is one person to thank, you might be surprised to figure out whom.
JaMarcus Russell. That's right. Mister purple "drank", himself.
Davis' skin is only so thick that it can only take so much criticism and embarrassment. Seven consecutive losing seasons is one thing, but add to that the biggest draft bust in NFL history, and suddenly, a man has to reconsider the paths he has taken.
Take a look at this year's draft. Eighth overall pick Rolando McClain was seen by a few as a reach, only because the Raiders so desperately needed an offensive tackle. However, McClain was a safe pick, and is a guy who, unlike Russell, has high character value that matches or exceeds his ability to produce on the field.
Even last year's first round pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, despite the controversy surrounding his selection and his subsequent disaster of a rookie season, has impressed everyone around the organization with the improvements he's made this offseason, and the dedication he has shown to succeed.
Obviously, when it comes to the draft, something has changed in the Raiders' approach, even if it's a small one. Character is suddenly as important of a factor as a prospect's size and 40-yard dash time, and although it remains to be seen how these rookies will perform, the general consensus is that this is the Raiders' best draft haul in quite a while.
In free agency, the Raiders have made plenty of signings, but save for the recent acquisition of John Henderson, most have been of the fringe, low-risk variety. Super stars they are not, but the likes of undrafted rookie fullback Manase Tonga and veteran free agent running back Michael Bennett are expected to make big contributions to this year's team, despite their unheralded welcoming.
As far as trades go, the Raiders obviously made a big splash during the draft with the acquisition of quarterback Jason Campbell. Not only did Campbell's arrival mean the departure of JaMarcus Russell, but also, he is the best option the team has had at quarterback since Rich Gannon. Also, in an effort to bolster their defensive front, the Raiders acquired two pass rush specialists who still have plenty to prove in the NFL in Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves.
So the question is, have the Raiders done enough this offseason?
A simple yes or no answer would not suffice, but ultimately, given the Raiders' situation and the current state of the NFL, the team has actually addressed most of their pressing issues.
Obviously, the offensive line was a point of emphasis, and although the Raiders weren't able to grab a tackle with their first two picks in the draft, there is a lot of promise with third and fourth rounder picks, Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell, respectively.
Although he comes from Division II Hillsdale College, Veldheer was easily in the top five of most impressive offensive line prospects during the NFL combine. Veldheer was dominant and consistent in his collegiate career, and against better competition in the Texas versus The Nation game, Veldheer definitely stood out in his performance. The hope is that Veldheer can start at one of the tackle spots sooner rather than later, but he is the physical type of lineman that Cable and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson like, so it wouldn't be too surprising if Veldheer starts at some point during the season.
Campbell, of course, is a guy many expected to be a Raider, but certainly not someone who was expected to go in the fourth round. Physically, he might have been the most impressive prospect at the Combine, regardless of position, and for that reason, many pegged Campbell as the Raiders' pick in the first round.
However, as another sign that the Raiders have perhaps matured in their understanding of the draft, Cable and company put more stock in experience (something Campbell lacked), and their patience paid off with Campbell dropping to the fourth. Although he's physically capable, the Raiders want to bring Campbell up slowly, opting to put him in the rotation at right guard. As a first or second rounder, Campbell would have been a huge reach and a possible bust, but with less pressure as a fourth round pick, the Raiders picked up the prospect with arguably the highest ceiling, at the lowest risk involved.
So much will be predicated on how Robert Gallery bounces back from injury, and if the resigned Khalif Barnes and Samson Satele will have bounce back years. At their maximum potential, all three are capable of being above average talents, but those are arguably the biggest questions that remain on the offensive line. Cooper Carlisle has seen his productive drop significantly in the past year or two, so despite the moves the Raiders have made, future success is partly relying on the hope that the team can get as much out of their veterans in whatever time they have left in their careers.
Defensive line was another point of emphasis, and the Raiders were never able to land one of the big fishes in the draft, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy. However, in the second round, the team selected Texas lineman Lamarr Houston, and he is a guy that has an excellent chance at starting in 2010. Originally drafted as a tackle, Tom Cable announced in his post draft media conference that the plan is to move Houston to the strongside defensive end spot in hopes that he will provide better containment against the run.
That, of course, is how the Raiders are going about trying to revamp one of the league's worst run defenses. The draft left many wondering if the Raiders did enough to address the needs at defensive tackle, seeing as how Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant were the only two certainties, with Houston moving to defensive end.
However, instead of simply adding singular pieces to the line, the Raiders are going for versatility along the entire defensive front seven. Richard Seymour, who recently signed his franchise tag tender, is obviously the big name along the line. The veteran lineman is being paid as a defensive end, but has the ability to play in the interior.
The biggest name the Raiders acquired this offseason, John Henderson, is also a versatile defender in that he can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front, at either tackle or end. While the Raiders insist that they will remain a 4-3 team, Cable has not completely disregarded some 3-4 this season, and mentioned that there would be some surprising twists during fall camp and in the preseason.
Wimbley and Groves add speed on the edges for the Raiders, and have the ability to move from their outside linebacker spots to playing with their hands down on the edge. Again, this is yet another attempt of the Raiders to build a defensive front, rather than simply a line, based on speed and versatility against both run and pass.
First round pick Rolando McClain is expected to man the middle, and thus far, he has shown every sign that he's capable of taking the lead. Despite the production of the departed Kirk Morrison, the expectations are that McClain will, at the very least, put up similar numbers as Morrison. But McClain is a more proactive defender who excels as a leader and while working in traffic. Although many in Raider Nation were sad to see Morrison go, McClain is definitely an upgrade at the MIKE linebacker spot.
The team also added depth at cornerback and in the offensive backfield, two areas that were in need of help. With the release of veteran Justin Fargas, the Raiders have elected to put their hopes in their young duo of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. Both have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither has shown the ability to stay healthy over the course of an entire season. Part of it is obviously due to the struggles of the offensive line, and while Bush has been the more consistent of the two, this is seen as a make-or-break year for the third-year man McFadden.
Of course, the biggest headline the Raiders made this offseason was the release of JaMarcus Russell, and the subsequent acquisition of Jason Campbell. The writing was on the wall for Russell and soon as the team traded for Campbell, and his departure is seen as yet another classic example of addition by subtraction.
While Campbell hasn't exactly set the football world on fire thus far into his career, he's been a victim of unfortunate circumstances, having played for a different offensive coordinator practically every season, dating back to his college and high school days. Although he's playing for yet another new coordinator, Campbell is a far better game manager than the Raiders could have ever hoped Russell to be. While no one is expecting Campbell to produce Pro Bowl numbers, he is certainly being counted on to be a more consistent, calming influence on the offense.
While it remains to be seen if the Raiders are done making any moves this offseason, it certainly looks as if Cable and his staff have most of the pieces they need to build for the 2010 season and beyond.
In some circles, there is still yet talk that the Raiders might look for a veteran receiver such as Terrell Owens, but up this point, most of that talk is pure speculation, and the Raiders have done a good job this offseason of avoiding such potential locker room saboteurs.
Perhaps there are still one or two moves the Raiders have in them, particularly on the offensive line. However, the Raiders have certainly gone about this offseason the right way, in doing their homework, avoiding potential disasters, and bringing in high character players at low costs with the potential for high rewards.
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