For months there was plenty of speculation as to what the 2006 Vikings would look like. After hiring a new coaching staff, adding several players and losing several more, fans will get their first chance to see the 2006 Vikings – both locally and nationwide – as the team becomes the last in the NFL to open the preseason schedule when it hosts the Raiders Monday night.
The game has national significance because it will be the first "Monday Night Football" game since the NFL moved the Monday night package from ABC to ESPN. But to Vikings fans, the significance of the game will center on the return of Randy Moss to the stadium in which he electrified fans for years.
Unlike the Vikings, the Raiders will be playing their second preseason game of the year – they played in the Hall of Fame game against the Eagles last week to open the preseason schedule. They might play their starters a little longer than the Vikings and, from the looks of things, they may need to.
Like the Vikings, the Raiders are a team in transition after firing their coaching staff and, after being rebuffed by several coaching candidates, brought Art Shell out of retirement to return to the team. Shell is trying to install discipline and a return to the vertical passing game, which should help not only Moss, but quarterback Aaron Brooks.
Brooks has been one of the more erratic quarterbacks in the league, posting great numbers at times, but often making critical mistakes that cost his Saints teams games. He was effectively run out of town at the end of last season and landed with the Raiders. He has plenty of weapons to use in the passing game, starting with but not exclusive to Moss. Jerry Porter is a tremendous talent, but has already found himself in Shell's doghouse after getting into a shouting match with him during the pre-training camp workouts. He has been the subject of several trade rumors, but remains in the mix as an excellent complement receiver to Moss. While they likely will only play a couple of series, several other Raiders receivers are using the Porter situation to improve their own stock.
Doug Gabriel has spent the early part of training camp working with the first unit offense and Ronald Curry has been slowed with injuries that will give veteran Alvis Whitted and young players Johnnie Morant and Carlos Francis more opportunities. The tight ends are scarce on the Raider roster, with Courtney Anderson used more as a blocker than a receiver and backup Randal Williams transitioning from being a wide recevier to a tight end.
While the passing game has weapons for Brooks and backups Marques Tuiasosopo and Andrew Walter, the running game is expected to be the private domain of LaMont Jordan once the regular season rolls around. Similar to the Vikings' Chester Taylor, Jordan spent his early career as a backup – playing behind Curtis Martin with the New York Jets. Given his opportunity to shine, he made the most of it last year, leading the Raiders in both rushing and receptions. However, the Raiders are more concerned about having him healthy for the regular season, so he will likely see just a cameo appearance Monday, giving way for backups like Justin Fargas, RaShard Lee and Rod Smart of "He Hate Me" fame to get their chance to make an impression on the coaching staff.
The biggest change up front for the Raiders will be the return of former top pick Robert Gallery to his natural left tackle position, one of the first moves Shell – a former offensive lineman himself – made. The move will return Langston Walker to right tackle with Jake Grove at center and Barry Sims and Paul McQuistan at guards. Among the projected backups include former starters Adam Treu at both center and guard and former Viking Brad Badger as a backup right tackle.
The defensive front didn't have a single player start all 16 games and only two – tackle Tommy Kelly and end Derrick Burgess – that even played all 16 games. The Raiders have some star power on the line with longtime Vikings nemesis Warren Sapp at the other tackle spot and converted linebacker Tyler Brayton at the rush end position. Among the Raiders looking to hook on is former Viking Lance Johnstone, who returns to Oakland after several productive years with the Vikings.
The linebacker corps has a new look to it with the addition of rookie Thomas Howard, who is expected to be an immediate starter at outside linebacker. He'll join Sam Williams and Kirk Morrison in the starting lineup. Neither player is overly flashy or dominant in pass coverage or as blitzers, but both are very aggressive and chase down a lot of plays. There is plenty of competition for backup roles, with converted rookie safety Darnell Bing, Grant Irons, Robert Thomas and Isaiah Ekejiuba fighting for roster spots on the outside and Danny Clark and Ryan Riddle in a position battle on the inside. The backup spots are wide open and nothing is assured, which should make for some good camp competition.
The Raiders secondary is also a work in progress. After letting former All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson go, the Raiders enter their second season with starting corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Fabian Washington. Both have good speed and weren't burned often last year, despite being targets of deep passes. A pair of veterans looking to reclaim their careers – Duane Starks and Tyrone Poole – are among the players looking to hang on as backups and potential nickel backs. The bigger competition could be at safety, where first-round pick Michael Huff is trying to unseat former first-rounder Derrick Gibson at strong safety, while Stuart Schweigert seems relatively set at free safety. Jarrod Cooper will also see action, but his forte is on special teams, which should be enough to keep him on the roster.
One training camp battle to watch is at kicker. Oakland has been known as having one of the best kicking units in the league with kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. But Janikowski had his worst season as a pro last year and the Raiders aren't letting him sit on his laurels of past seasons. He's in a battle with youngsters Tim Duncan and David Kimball and, if he struggles, Janikowski could be done as a Raider.
The Raiders are a good opponent for the Vikings. Coming off a lackluster opening performance at the Hall of Fame game, Oakland is looking to make a big impression. The Vikings, meanwhile, want to get their 2006 season off to a winning start. The game promises to have many of the elements that make a first preseason game what it is – a chance for the starters to get a cameo workout and let the guys fighting for their NFL lives decide the outcome.
Preseason Preview: Raiders at Vikings
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