At some point the Oakland Raiders are going to make a few football moves that I’ll agree with although firing Tom Cable was not one of them. Many have attributed their newfound offensive success to Hue Jackson, who succeeded Cable as Head Coach. They did put the NFL on notice last year with a powerful rushing attack that kept them in games. Last year at midseason they were 5-4 and had just defeated the Chiefs, the eventual division winner, and looked to be headed to the playoffs. That stumble in Indianapolis in week 16 (31-26 loss) kept them from the postseason and they finished 8-8.
Last year the Raiders went undefeated in the AFC West, sweeping the division champion Chiefs in the process. Can they duplicate that feat and win a few more games and get to the playoffs?? Well in football there is a saying that in order to be good you have to run the football and stop the run. They were 2nd in the NFL averaging 155 yards per game and a stout 4.9 yards per carry average. However there are two sides to that equation and where their numerator was good, their low common denominator of being 29th against the run, allowing 2,138 yards rushing was atrocious. They don’t fix this they have to watch the playoffs again. As for Jason Campbell, pull the trigger and don’t play so overly cautious. His team will need him to make more plays with defenses creeping up to stop the run. So how will they fare this year?
Quarterback: Face it, Jason Campbell is a serious upgrade from JaMarcus Russell. Yet that’s not saying much when you’re replacing the biggest draft bust in NFL history. This was addition by subtraction in the team felt like it could win without seeing Russell in the lineup. Where in years past they looked defeated walking onto the field. The first thing asked of Campbell was to minimize the turnovers and he did that. However there were plays where Campbell was too apprehensive. He has to realize its his team and play with some abandon. In 2010 he was 7-5 as a starter, completed 59% of his passes for 2,387 yds, 13 TDs, and only 8 interceptions. Statistically thats not bad yet many times he would check down to the running back without letting his downfield options develop. Then there were a few chances when Jacoby Ford broke into the open and Campbell would overthrow his target. Maybe he’ll be more settled in his second season as the starter. They need him to make all the throws if they are to become a playoff team. Going into his 6th season its time for him to put it together and he has the tools. Will he??
Then you have his backup in scrappy Bruce Gradkowski. This guy plays from his gut and plays with a reckless abandon that Campbell should. He passes further up the passing tree and will take a few more chances. Some came out good and some bad. He threw for 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions with his 157 attempts last year. Naturally his completion percentage was only 52.9% yet again he took more chances and inspires his teammates when he’s in there. If there were a way to fuse these two into a single player, the Raiders would be set at quarterback. Its like this “Have your read, know your defense, when you see the defense take their first steps, know where you’re going with the football and let it fly Jason Campbell.” Don’t be overly cautious! Remember when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII? In that season Jim Plunkett threw for 20 TDs and 18 interceptions so sometimes it can go against you but you can’t win most of your games throwing sideways passes. Silver and black is below average. Campbell has to take charge and not go through the motions.
Offensive Backfield: Did you see that?? Darren McFadden finally showed up! Yeah the guy from Arkansas who was the do everything back coming out of college. Something happened last year and McFadden played motivated and ran with authority. His 1,157 yards were a career high and he ran with power between the tackles along with Michael Bush. Bush complemented McFadden with 655 yards of his own and ran for a team high 8 TDs to 7 for McFadden. By the time you throw in Marcel Reece, no Raider running back averaged less than 4.1 yards. Gaudy numbers when the league average is 4.0. As for McFadden he stopped going down with the first point of contact like he had in his previous 2 seasons. He ran like the DMC we expected out of college. He complemented his first 1,000 yard rushing year with 47 receptions out of the backfield for another 3 TDs. He was the driving force behind the resurgent running game and Oakland had him for 13 of a possible 16 games last year v. the 12 combined starts over 2 seasons being nagged by injuries. He runs with abandon like he did last year and a 1,400 – 1,500 yard season is not out of the question.
Something was definitely in the gatorade last year for the Raiders. Bush was the complimentary back who had an excellent year where he ran for nearly 700 yards, he caught 18 passes for nearly 200 more. These two were giving defenses absolutely no rest as the 210 lb.s McFadden hit them first, then the 243 lbs. Bush would help tire them further and holes opened up later in games for McFadden to hit the big one on opponents. Was this a fluke? Absolutely not. The Raiders ran with thunder and did so all year constantly knocking opponents back. This is the best 1-2 punch next to Kansas City at running back, so this team is Super Bowl quality at running back. What remains to be seen is how 4th round draft pick Taiwan Jones fits into the equation. http://www.nfl.com/draft/2011/profiles/taiwan-jones?id=2495467 If he’s a special team player or comes in as a supplemental 3rd down back this team stays Super Bowl quality at running back
Receivers: Well everyone chides and teases about Al Davis and his penchant for the vertical passing game yet consequently he should have it. From a football strategist standpoint, they will lure teams into 7 and 8 man fronts to stop the run opening lanes for seam routes, verticals, digs, and deep corner patterns. As soon as that SS comes up these guys have to get open. Here is where the Raiders may need to see improvement to become a playoff team. Darius Heyward Bey and Jacoby Ford have shown flashes that they can get deep, but can they learn to set up rival cornerbacks and not telegraph what they are running? Can they sell the first half of the play action pass to get free releases into the intermediate (10-15 yard) area of the passing tree? Right now they have some more learning to do but these are young players.
Going into his 3rd year, this is where Darrius Heyward-Bey needs to have his breakout year to justify his lofty 1st round selection and 7th pick overall status. Last year he caught 25 passes for 366 yards and only 1 touchdown, yet was overthrown on multiple times when he did get deep. Campbell hits him on those and he could possibly have his first 1,000 yard season or close to it. Right now Heyward-Bey is inconsistent with his set up moves to get deep on veteran corners. Jacoby Ford actually flashed more as a rookie than his 1st round counterpart. He only started 9 games yet went on to grab 25 passes for 470 yards and 2 TDs. He’s a quicker, more explosive receiver with more of an upside because he can get in and out of routes a little quicker to get himself open. They’re going to have to trust Campbell and Campbell has to trust them by throwing catchable passes they’re way. When in doubt, Campbell has Pro Bowl TE Zach Miller who had a stellar 2010 with 60 receptions for 685 yards and 5 touchdowns. He led the Raiders in all 3 receiving categories yet that has to change for this team to see the postseason. At receiver the Raiders are growing but right now we have to give them a below average rating.
Offensive Line: This group was given a bum rap by many for their sack totals given up last year. Its true they gave up 44 sacks yet Raider quarterbacks were hit on only 77 plays all told. For every team that ranked in the bottom half of the league for sacks their quarterbacks were usually hit double or even triple the amount of times they were sacked. Much of this can be attributed Campbell holding onto the ball to long rather than consistent poor pass blocking. Yet the Raiders went after OLine talent in the draft, first taking Stefen Wisniewski in the second round from Penn St, then Joseph Barksdale in the 3rd from LSU. Incumbent RT Langston Walker may have a hard time fighting off Barksdale for the starting position. Wisniewski is fighting for one of the guard spots.
Not exactly sure we agree with tinkering with this line when you dissect last year’s numbers. They’re adding this talent to a line that mashed its way to 2,494 yards and a 4.9 yards per carry average. Both those numbers ranked second in the NFL but the Eagles (yards per carry) numbers were distorted because of Michael Vick, so the Raiders were really the league’s best ground team. Those are some tremendous numbers for an offensive line that didn’t have 1 pro bowler on it. In fact when it came to 3rd or 4th and 2 or shorter, the Raiders gained a first down or touchdown 67 times running to the left and 79 times running right up the gut. They weren’t that successful running right with only 25 successes. So you can see where those two draft picks will be fighting for playing time. This line is playoff caliber and with improved quarterback play could be Super Bowl caliber.
Defensive Line: What defensive line?? As we mentioned before, the ranking of 29th against the run and giving up over 2,100 yards on the ground starts right here. They also allowed 14 rushing touchdowns which negated the advantage the offense gave them anyway. How bad are these numbers?? If the totals that Oakland gave up on the ground were attributed to a 33rd NFL team, they would have finished seventh in rushing. Yikes!! Tackle somebody! How did Richard Seymour make the Pro Bowl again?? Why wasn’t a draft pick spent here??
Well one thing they did do really well last year was get to the quarterback. The Raiders tallied 47 sacks and 27.5 came from their front line. Matt Shaughnessy (who?) and Tommy Kelly led the line with 7 sacks each followed by Semour’s 5.5, and Lamar Houston’s (#99) 5 quarterback take downs. They may not want to tear up the field after the quarterback and disregard the run so much. Richard Seymour did see a ton of double teams which freed up Shaughnessy and Kelly to garner 56 & 59 tackles respectively. They may need to play at home more and become solid at stopping the run. However with 3 defensive linemen over 30 there is a chance they’ll wear down by the end of the season. Again, why wasn’t there a draft pick spent here? Defensive line is below average in the Bay Area.
Linebackers: Quite simply, the heart and soul of this defense. The Raiders have found their MLB for years to come in Rolando McClain out of Alabama. He didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, producing 85 tackles, half a sack and had an interception. The years of a stopgap free agent filling this spot has ended. This kid is the real deal. He has range and at 6’3, 254 lbs arrives with thunder once he gets there. This is Oakland’s version of Patrick Willis. Will soon be a Pro Bowler once Ray Lewis and a few veterans retire or play slacks off.
Speaking of Pro Bowls, we think Kamerion Wimbley was cheated of going to one last year. He didn’t make a tremendous amount of splash plays but he was consistent. He led the Raiders with 9 sacks, and tallied 57 tackles with 1 forced fumble from his outside linebacker spot. Those numbers on a higher ranked defense and he may have been in Hawai’i. These 2 men were 3rd and 4th in tackles for the silver and black in 2010 and should be around for years to come. Before the lockout, the Raiders re-signed Wimbley, formerly of the Cleveland Browns, to a one year deal designating him a franchise player for 2011. Expect a big year from him because he knows a multi-million dollar deal awaits with another performance like 2010. These two are stellar yet need some help. Teams have been able to get offensive linemen on them because of the leaks up front. Better play by the DTs up front and their numbers could go way up. Raiders are playoff ready at linebacker.
Secondary: With the impending free agent loss of Namedi Asougmha looming, the Raiders quickly moved to pick up CB DeMarcus VanDyke and Chimdi Chekwa as possible replacements. VanDyke, from the U, is similar in build to Namedi, at 6-1, 180 lbs. He has long arms and should prove to be disruptive in jamming receivers. Along with special teamer Chris Johnson #37, they should have a succession in place. Johnson started 4 games last year and had 16 tackles, defended 9 passes and had 2 interceptions. So this isn’t a stab in the dark. If the rookies aren’t ready don’t be surprised or disappointed if #37 is starting at one of the corner spots. The other corner is Stanford Routt #26 who quietly had a good season with 54 tackles, 13 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions. They’ll be fine at the corner.
At safety they might be too beat up to pick off any passes. SS Tyvon Branch and FS Michael Huff led the team in tackles with 101 and 84 tackles respectively. That is far too many plays getting past the front seven. These two were active and were effective blitzers with each tallying 4 sacks. Some have been disappointed with Huff from a fan’s perspective but he seems to make enough plays for me. Last year he defensed 7 passes and had 3 interceptions. If the defensive front keeps opposing ball carriers from running at him full speed, he can concentrate on the pass where is numbers there will improve. As a defensive foursome this group is going to get an above average ranking even with the loss of the aforementioned #21. They have 3 corners to replace him and Johnson is a cousin to former Raider’s running back Kenny King, so he has family ties within the organization.
Overall: The Raiders should be improved from 2010 and the next step is at quarterback. Campbell has to be told that he’s the starter so he can play without fear. All those groans from long balls that don’t connect needs to go away for you can’t hide your quarterback. The question is can he move from being a quarterback playing not to make a mistake, to one thats trying to win the game? Will he improve with his downfield reads and let fly? If he does this the Raiders challenge the Chiefs for the AFC West crown with 10 or 11 wins. If he doesn’t the Raiders will know what to draft first starting the 2012 season and a 7-9 or 8-8 season awaits. The other factor is if they use the money they didn’t pay Namedi to get some defensive line help. They have to improve against the run for the aforementioned development of Campbell to get them to the playoffs. Can they?? Will they??