The Raiders have opened camp under much better circumstances than in recent years. Between improved rosters, coaching stability, and a lack of rookie hold-outs, the team has been able to practice with out distraction. There has only been one major issue in the past months: the fragile mental and physical state of WR Javon Walker, but even this issue has seemed to dwindle as preseason games have gotten underway. There are still major storylines that bear watching, and below are a short list of the team’s major issues:
1. Offensive Line: There is no reason for the offensive line to be in the situation it currently is in. Starting quality offensive lineman are not expensive, and the team had money to spend this offseason. The team allowed LT Barry Sims to walk, instead opting to sign former 49er Kwame Harris. Harris has certainly improved under line coach Tom Cable and a favorable blocking scheme, but his major area of weakness is in pass protection, and as the left tackle of franchise quarterback JaMarcus Russell, this is a major issue. Harris needs to improve his skills in this area, as the passing came will be the Raiders’ main problem for the foreseeable future. RT Robert Gallery and C Jake Grove have had great preseasons, and the rest of the line is holding up, but even Coach Lane Kiffin acknowledged that the team lacks depth and could have used better players. Mario Henderson, penciled in as the LT of the future, has still not shown that he can make use of his prodigious skills, and in the eyes of many he is beginning to look like a lost cause.
2. Wide Reciever: Drew Carter has been a godsend: a steady, quick and smart receiver who can help Russell complete the shorter passes he needs to thrive on in his first full year as the starter. WR Ronald Curry has a knack for these passes too, but the threat of WRs is predicated on their ability to stretch the field. That’s where Javon Walker comes in – though Russell may not be asked to throw many deep balls for now, the threat of it forces teams to defend the whole field, rather than squeeze in on Carter and Curry and eliminate the short passing game. Walker has had his share of problems, and is certainly not in playing shape at the moment, but the first preseason game saw a few good routes and the promise of a rejuvenation as the season approaches. The next week of training camp will be especially important for him.
3. Quarterback: Russell has not been thrown into the fire just yet. The first preseason game was a waste, as the QB threw only five passes before being relieved. Russell needs to gain experience with lots of throws and plenty of gametime, and he hasn’t shown much so far this preseason. Hopefully things will change in the next preseason game. Coach Kiffin is attempting to build a solid environment around Russell so that he can grow into the QB role – a pattern that recently saw success with the Pittsburgh Steelers and QB Ben Roethlisberger.
4. Lastly, the run defense. This was a major source of headaches for the Raiders last season, and the main reason they lost so many games. Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands had terrible luck last year – Kelly tore his ACL after a stellar early season and Sands lost a family member and his focus on the game. This year it appears the two are in good shape for the season. Kelly showed that he is recovered from his ACL tear by collapsing the pocket and proving strong against the run in his first preseason game, and Sands has shown a much better level of endurance and effort, recovering a fumble 15 yards away and playing stellar run defense throughout his time on the field. The signings of Gibril Wilson and Ed Hartwell also look promising, as both are hard hitters and will be called upon to stop the run in crucial situations.
Of the four areas of greatest concern for the Raiders, I think its clear that the Offensive Line has issues that are likely to linger throughout the season. There isn’t much the team can do to improve its situation and it will be up to OL wizard Tom Cable to hold things together for the forseeable future. He helped bring the group from disaster to respectability last year and there’s no reason to think that he can’t repeat his successes in the upcoming season.