"Holy Toledo!"

August 11, 2009

An Insider’s View of the Oakland Raiders Summer Camp

Filed under: NFL, Oakland Raiders — Bill @ 3:21 pm

With the Raiders first preseason game being Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys I figured it was time to give all of you an update on what’s been going on at training camp so far this year.  As expected there are several intriguing battles for starting positions & unfortunately there have also been some injuries as well.

Until recently the weather has been too cool for my liking, the guys need the heat to be properly prepared for the long season that awaits them.  Also interesting is the lack of the “two-a-day” practice sessions that have been a long standing tradition for the Raiders summer camp.  For the last few days there has only been one practice session per day, all full pads practices with hitting, but still only one per day.

OFFENSE

QB JaMarcus Russell in only his 2nd training camp has looked sharp at times and he is displaying signs of leadership.  His weight is a bit large but that will come off quickly, and consistent passing accuracy is an area needing improvement.  Many forget he wasn’t a 4 year starter at LSU and he is still in the development stages of his career.  Overall the young QB has been impressive and his future looks bright.

Many considered former 49ers QB Jeff Garcia to be the automatic #2 QB, which may be true, however the 39 yr. old Garcia has been unable to practice for a week due to a chronic calf strain.  It is unlikely he will play vs. Dallas.

The only perceived competition at QB is for the #3 spot between Charlie Frye & Bruce Gradkowski.  So far the battle seems to be one-sided.  With Garcia out of the mix this week both Charlie & Brad have been getting more than their usual number of reps.  While Frye has displayed sharp passes & consistent accuracy on deep throws, Gradkowski has been just average.  Expect to see much of both men on Thursday night.

At RB there appears to be too many good players for just one football.  Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden, & Michael Bush will all be a part of the Raiders ’09 ground attack, the only question is who will start and who will come off the bench.  Based up early signs I don’t see how they can keep Bush out of the lineup, he has looked like a beast so far.  In a blocking drill he laid out a LB in perhaps the best hit of the camp so far.

Often forgotten in the role a RB plays is the ability to block a blitzing LB, just ask Napolean Kaufman why he was never a 3 down RB, or why Jeff George was always sitting on his ass.  This appears to be a huge area of improvement this year as both Bush & McFadden have displayed crunching blocking power early on.  Quietly the Raiders signed veteran FB Lorenzo Neal who brings leadership, playoff experience, and a history of blocking for some of the NFL’s best ground attacks (his value is extremely underrated).

McFadden still has speed to burn & in my opinion he is one of the league’s best open field runners.  His turf toe is healed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gain more than 1500 combined yards from scrimmage.  His hands have been consistently reliable, he will be a star in the NFL.

Last season the Raiders offense was hampered by a weak crop of WR’s.  No deep threat, inconsistent hands, lack of big play potential.  In game #15 last year they let the young guys play and JaMarcus & the Raiders offense was the beneficiary.  The clear #1 WR this summer has been Chaz Schilens who has dominated against the Raiders solid secondary.  At San Diego St. Schilens did everything to be a top pick in the NFL Draft until an injury caused his stock to fall.  Not healthy until late last year he never really had the opportunity to show his stuff, but he sure did in game #16.  Now he is not only healthy but wiser & better from professional coaching.  Chaz has consistently made the top catch of the day all summer.

Quietly Johnnie Lee Higgins (who I always liked & promoted from the start) has had an extremely good camp to date.  He just makes every catch, improved his blocking, and has established himself as the clear #2 WR in the Raiders’ offense.  Unfortunately because of his diminutive stature he may end up being the #1 slot WR.  I am probably safe in saying that he has finally outgrown his days of kickoff & punt coverage, he has become too valuable at WR & as one of the league’s top punt returner.

So where does that leave the bum that is Javon Walker?  The former Denver Donkey gone bad is actually surprising people with his work ethic.  Let’s not get carried away, while he does seem to have a new & improved attitude he has yet to practice with the team due to a “mysterious” knee operation this offseason.  If hope springs eternal he has to be better than he was last year.

Another big surprise this summer has been the Raiders draft pick from the National Champion Florida Gators Louis Murphy.  He has shown nice hands, tremendous route running, and a toughness that made him the #1 WR for the Gators in their championship game.  Yes the NFL is littered with former Florida WR’s who never made it, but the difference could very well be toughness.  Murphy just this week went fist to fist with fellow rookie safety “tough guy” Mike Mitchell.  Perhaps most importantly is that Louis has looked sharp catching passes consistently over the middle demonstrating an ability to get open.

At Tight End it is clear that Zach Miller is the solid starter, the only question appears to be the progress of draft pick Brandon Myers out of Iowa.  The Raiders traded up to select Myers in the 6th round to be a compliment for Miller, which means they want a TE that can run block.  So far Myers has done that, but he still needs to demonstrate an occasional ability to catch the ball during the preseason.

The O-Line suffered a huge blow when free agent potential starter Khalif Barnes was injured last week.  The man who was the starting tackle for Jacksonville will be out 4-6 weeks with a broken ankle when someone fell on the back of his leg.  He was fortunate it was only the ankle because his knee was also severely twisted on the play.  As a result it virtually hands the starting LT job to the young uprising Mario Henderson.  He has looked solid so far.

Gone is often injured center Jay Grove to a huge free agent contract in Miami.  Ironically the Raiders then traded for Miami’s former center Samson Satele.  The complaint against Satele was that he was sometimes outplayed by some of the larger nose tackles, but he is only 24 yrs. old and he started every game for the last two seasons for the Dolphins.  He still has an upside unlike Grove, and he cost a hell of a lot less.

Judging the O-line’s summer progress is always difficult, perhaps the proof will be in the rushing total during the next few preseason games.

The only other note re: the line is that RG Robert Gallery just returned to practice yesterday due to an unplanned appendectomy just a few weeks before summer camp began.

We would like to see the Raiders young offensive line get as many reps together as possible.  The Barnes injury is a tough blow, let’s just hope Henderson continues to improve.

The pace of summer camp has been a bit slower than I would like to see.  Much will be determined by the preseason games, it should be fun to watch.  Let’s just hope positions are decided by ability and not injury.

It all begins Thursday night in Oakland vs. the Cowboys.

(I will post a Defensive & Special Teams Update later)

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