Wednesday was the Oakland Raiders mandatory reporting date and with the exception of first round pick Rolando McClain, who is expected as early as tomorrow, everyone is in Napa and ready to go.
The Raiders are a team that looks to get themselves on an upswing after seven years of eleven or more losses, and this is where everything begins in ernest. The optimism that pervaded after the strong minicamps and organized team activites can easily come crashing down into the cold reality of losing if they don’t attack camp by keeping Head Coach Tom Cable’s maxim of “playing the right way” once the practices begin on Thursday morning.
The offensive line was a major weak link during the 2009 season. Injuries played a part in that problem as Mario Henderson and Cooper Carlisle were the only two linemen to start all 16 ganes, and continuity is a major factor in the success of an offensive line. However, as the maxim goes, “you play with who you got.” It is easy for an offense to look improved when there is no pressure on the quarterback and the defense can’t really tackle. The non-contact practices over the offseason can get the linemen the repeitions they need to get in the habit of being where they need to be and getting their technique right, but when it comes to practicing blocking a 300 lb man, there is no substitute for actually overpowering another 300lb man. Theoretical improvement is all well and good, but until they show it on the field it is only speculation.
The acquisitions the Raiders made along the line are depth in Daniel Looper and projects for the future in likely guard Bruce Campbell and tackle Jared Veldheer. Neither one of them look to be starters as rookies, and won’t make instant impacts along the line. Other than the right tackle position where the departure of Cornell Green is addition by subtraction, the line will be pretty much the same. Khalif Barnes who looked woefully out of place in two starts in that position last season and prodegal Raider Langston Walker will be competing for Green’s old spot.
The offense showed a strong sense of urgency during the offseason workout programs. Much of that can be attributed to having a quarterback not on the Purple Drank and to the new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. The offense can not lose that intensity. Over the last couple of years delay of game penalties had been a problem with the quarterback bringing the team to the line late. That has been prevailent in the practices where the offense did not get as many repetitions in becuase the team was lethargic to the line.
The energy shift in 2009 that was a result of the switch from JaMarcus Russell to Bruce Gradkowski the Charlie Frye, was the cause of the Raiders winning three games late in the season. There change was palpable throughout the team. They have to further boost the energy through camp, to take it to the next level once the lights go on for the regular season.
Tackling has been the biggest problem with the Raiders defense for the past several years. They traded away former starting linebacker Kirk Morriosn and drafted Rolando McClain out of Alabama to bulk up the middle of their defense. They also moved Trevor Scott from defensive end to linebacker, and added Kamerion Wembley and Quentin Groves to the mix to get more bulk at that position. What remains to be seen is whether or not the changes can fix the fundamental problem of miissed tackles. The Raider were among the leaders in tackles for a loss last season, but they were also among the leaders in giving up the big play. Neraly every big play that made Sports Center Highlights could be seen going through the missed tackle of a Raider defender. That is not counting the times where the play was the result of over-pursuit.
The non-contact camps from the offseason showed the defenders often getting to where they needed to be, but by the deifinition of it being a non-contact camp, they had to pull up rather than wrap up and make the tackle. Unfortunately, too often that is what they were doing during gametime as well. With training camp finally allwoing them to have full contact practices, it will be seen whether or not they can tackle.
Tracking the camp battles is an ongoing storyline every year this time. Reserve linebacker Isaiah Ekejiuba was the first familiar face to be let go, but he likely won’t be the last. There are 80 men on the roster who are fighting for 53 spaces. Every year, there are surprises as to who makes the team as well as who joins the ranks of the unemployed.
Injuries are the bane of all NFL teams’ existences, and training camp injuries really thrown off teams’ plans. In 2009 Chaz Schilens broke his foot in a joint practice with the San Francisco 49ers, and that cost him the first half of the season. Nick Miller made the team on the strength of a strong camp, but a broken leg at the end of camp cost him any playing time for the season. In 2008 it was fullback Oren O’Neal and wide receiver Drew Carter who were hurt in preseason games. It would prove to be career ending for Carter, and O’Neal came back to play in 4 games in 2009, but was no longer the effective blocker he was as a rookie in ’07.