Five keys to the Raiders' season:
1. Ready to run
The great thing about picking in the top five of the NFL draft in back-to-back years is the chance to get impact players. And considering the Raiders snared Darren McFadden — a player most experts considered the most talented in the draft — with the No. 4 overall pick, things should be turning around for the Silver and Black quickly. While McFadden needs work on his receiving skills — his track record in college wasn’t great — he could become as dangerous as LaDainian Tomlinson. While that might take a few years to flush out, his versatility (he often lined up at quarterback at Arkansas) will bring a dynamic aspect to the Raiders’ offense, which is in desperate need of a major spark. The running game could be one of the NFL’s best if McFadden steps up, Justin Fargas is the real deal and coach Lane Kiffin finds a way to utilize both. Oh, yeah: Don’t forget about Michael Bush.
2. No. 1 is truly No. 1
His rookie year didn’t go as planned. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was a holdout into the regular season and made just one start, the last game of the year. But the former LSU star, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick a year ago, is the unquestioned starter this season. He showed flashes of brilliance during his carefully scripted playing time as a rookie, but the blinders will be off this thoroughbred of a QB. His rocket arm will stretch the field and he is nimble enough to escape the pass rush (the Raiders have allowed 113 sacks in the last two seasons). However, he has shown a tendency to be erratic, so accuracy and consistency will be key.
3. Safety in numbers
If it seems like the Raiders signed a gazillion veteran safeties in preparation for this season, they did. After being disappointed in Stuart Schweigert, owner Al Davis was aggressive in signing former City College of San Francisco star Gibril Wilson away from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. His addition allows former first-round pick Michael Huff to move from strong safety to free safety. Former Kansas City Chiefs safety Greg Wesley lasted about a month in training camp before being cut. One-time wonder boy Adam Archuleta was brought in and is being converted from safety to strongside linebacker in hopes of getting more speed on defense.
4. De-fense! De-fense!
In four of the last five years, the Raiders have statistically had a defense that ranked in the bottom third — the exception being 2006 (No. 3). Last year’s No. 22 ranking could be attributed to the offense being No. 25. But that didn’t preclude the Raiders from changing their defensive personnel. In addition to the safety changes, cornerback Fabian Washington was traded to Baltimore and replaced by Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Hall, giving the Raiders two tremendous corners (along with Nnamdi Asomugha). Defensive tackle Warren Sapp retired, so Gerard Warren steps in. The rapidly improving Jay Richardson, a fifth-round pick last year, starts on the opposite end from sack master Derrick Burgess. Burgess led the Raiders in sacks for the third straight year, but with the lowest total of his Silver and Black tenure (eight).
5. Kiffin’s coffin?
The Raiders were seemingly this close to having a new coach this year after Davis reportedly asked Kiffin to resign. But the young Kiffin — after just his first season as an NFL head coach — held his ground against Darth Raider and, while he might have surrendered some decision-making responsibility, showed some mental toughness. The battle likely included Kiffin’s desire to drop the ax on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after last year’s showing. All parties are still around, so there had to be some sort of meeting of the minds. It will be interesting how the Kiffin-Ryan relationship works out and which side Davis will land on if there are more issues this year.
After getting his Super Bowl ring, the former City College of San Francisco star wanted some home cooking. The San Jose product was brought in to shore up the tackling and improve the play at safety. Wilson has 11 interceptions in his first four years, including a career-best four last season.His playmaking ability should cut down the number of big plays that occurred underneath coverage.
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener of the offseason was the contract the Raiders gave to their defensive tackle. When he signed the seven-year, $50.5 million deal, Kelly became the NFL’s highest-paid defensive tackle (which has since been surpassed). Not bad for a guy coming off a season in which he played just seven games because of a knee injury and for a guy who had a rather undistinguished career before his big payday.
The running back who finally showed some of his potential last year is the wild card of the Raiders’ offense this year. Potentially, he could form a dynamic, quick 1-2 punch at running back with top draft choice Darren McFadden. That is if his injury history doesn’t continue to dog him. Fargas’ career-best year of 1,009 yards (in only seven starts) was marred by the fact he missed the last two games due to a knee injury.
The former big-play receiver had quite the summer — and that was before the exhibition games began. He was allegedly beaten and robbed on the Las Vegas Strip, then had to be talked down off the retirement ledge by owner Al Davis. With all of that behind him, all the Raiders are asking of Walker is that he become the reliable No. 1 receiver they need in order for JaMarcus Russell to develop.
The tight end quickly showed he was Russell’s favorite target when the two rookies hooked up eight times for 84 yards in the season finale last year. The two have continued their on-field bonding during the preseason, providing a safety net should the deep game not be there and the runnning game not produce. Miller should easily surpass his 44-catch, 444-yard, three-touchdown rookie season.
GAME TO WATCH
The last time Brett Favre trotted onto the turf at McAfee Coliseum, he did so with a heavy heart. The day before a “Monday Night Football” game against the Raiders, Favre’s father, Irv, died. Favre did what a coach’s son does and took the field to honor his father. The performance was amazing: 22-of-30 passing for 399 yards and four touchdowns. This time, the Raiders will find out where they are at when Favre rolls in with his new team, the New York Jets, on Oct. 19 in what could be the softest portion of the Silver and Black’s schedule.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about where the Raiders are right now. But these are the Raiders, one of the dregs of the NFL since their Super Bowl appearance after the 2002 season. Fortunately, they play in a weak AFC West — aside from San Diego, of course — so that makes things a bit easier. A top-10 pick is still in their future after finishing 5-11.