Seven long, long months of offseason waiting for this time of the year to finally return. Yes Raiders fans, the wait is just about over as it's time to put on the pads and helmets and start hitting as the Oakland Raiders prepare to get the 2009 NFL season started with the opening of their training camp in Napa on July 29th.
As far as Raiders offseasons goes, 2009 has been their most functional and stable in years, especially compared with the others in the AFC West. While there are questions for all 32 of the NFL teams leading into their training camps, we are here to discuss the Raiders, so let's look at the questions the Raiders will have to answer going into training camp:
- JaMarcus Russell: When it comes to questions with the Raiders, the number 1 question always revolves around JaMarcus Russell. He showed steady progress during the last six games of the 2008 season and in particular, the final two games of the year, which were upset victories, Russell looked especially promising in all aspects of his game. However, during the offseason, with news being slow and not much to report on, the media tried in vain again to get the "Russell is fat" story to stick and when that didn't work they moved onto the pursuit of questioning Russell's work ethic and whether he has desire to be a great quarterback. Well, this is the year we will find all of that out. The Raiders have done just about all they can do to build support around Russell and give him all he needs to succeed. With stability and experience in the coaching staff for the first time since Russell arrived; a veteran and experienced QB in Garcia to mentor and push Russell; an improved offensive line; an All-Pro in the making tight end in Zach Miller, who just happens to be Russell's favorite target; an upgrade at the wide receiver position from experience, health and the draft; the addition of Lorenzo Neal's blocking skills and leadership in the huddle; and most importantly, a solid running game that is the team's strength which will match the "run first" offensive scheme. With all of the above, Russell should have all he needs to be an effective NFL quarterback in this system. Russell's condition, leadership, footwork and accuracy will all be on display in camp, so the question of Russell's progress will be answered before the opener against the Chargers.
- Stopping the run: This has been the Achilles Heal for the Raiders' defense for the last several years. Has it been because of pure lack of talent? Or has it been because of the misuse of talent by the Rob Ryan regime, which has not been known for discipline and conditioning. A lot of the blame has been put on the defensive line, certainly deserving, but not entirely to blame, as the linebacking group seems to have forgotten the fundamentals of tackling. The question coming into camp is, new defensive coordinator John Marshall brings to the Raiders previous success and experience that should add the the much needed and previously lacking, attention to the fundamentals and discipline, are the Raiders finally ready to take a step up and show that they are capable of stopping the run? If that answer turns out to be lack of talent, then expect the Raiders to still make a move and acquire another defensive tackle. Dwayne Robertson is still out there, but the best move would be for the Raiders and Pats to work out a deal for the Raiders to acquire Vince Wilfork.
- Finding SAM: I don't mean Sam Williams either, as he has been a colossal disappointment on the strongside and now his value has been reduced to special teams. The Raiders have plugged in Jon Alston, the speedy special teamer to play the SAM position and so far through the mini's and OTA's he has impressed the coaching staff. Alston also has reportedly bulked up to 235lbs to be able to handle the riggers that the position calls for and to be sure, Alston does know how to tackle. Ricky Brown, the previous starter, remains in the mix, but he is being tried at MLB to add depth behind Morrison. That leaves rookie Slade Norris and Williams at this time as the only competition and depth at SAM. This is an incredibly thin position and potential liability to the defense. We will see if Alston holds up in camp and can really take control of the position, otherwise, the Raiders will have to continue their search for the real SAM.
- Mario Henderson: The Raiders could have drafted Eugene Monroe but they didn't. That was primarily because of their belief and confidence in Mario Henderson. Henderson had certainly done everything he could last season when he was given the opportunity to play. We all know that the strength of the offensive line starts with the left tackle and camp will show if Mario can fend off the competition from Barnes and become a solid, effective NFL left tackle. The question going into camp will be is Henderson the real deal and is he going to be the man protecting JaMarcus' blind side for years to come?
- Safety: This unit last year couldn't tackle, couldn't cover and couldn't communicate. That problem should be addressed by the John Marshall and the new coaches. Oakland has lacked a true enforcer at that position since Rod Woodson left after 2003. The corners are going to do their job, but it is time for the safeties to do theirs, else the Raiders defense will continue to be exposed. The Raiders have "promising potential" at safety in Tyvon Branch and rookie Mike Mitchell, the question going into camp will be can that promising potential be realized and turned into solid and effective play at safety and become an upgrade for the defense?
Those are my five questions going into camp. What do you think Nation? What are the answers that you are looking for from the Raiders going in to training camp?