One thing that has been missing for some time in Oakland is a strong sense of competition. That's not to say that competition has not been present in Oakland over the past few years, but it was nowhere near the level it is at this season. In the past, you may have seen a competition like the battle for the starting QB position in 2007 between Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown, or the competition for middle linebacker in 2009 between Ricky Brown and Kirk Morrison. But never recently have there been so many positions up for grabs in the Oakland Raiders camp as there is this season. Let's take a look at some position that will be up for grabs.
Jason Campbell might not feel much pressure right now, only being pushed in mini-camp and OTA's by Charlie Frye and Kyle Boller, but once Bruce Gradkowski puts himself into the mix, he will be under tremendous pressure. Gradkowski is not going to lay down and let this job that he believes to be his go unchallenged to the newcomer, regardless of their past draft stocks or stat lines.
While Jason Campbell attempts to form a bond with his new teammates, Gradkowski has already been to battle with many of these guys and they believe that he has the tools to get the job done despite whoever outside of the team thinks that Gradkowski is not the long-term solution. Some have already declared this job as belonging to Jason Campbell, but Bruce Gradkowski would certainly disagree with that assessment. It's not like Gradkowski already has a fork in him, as I'm sure JaMarcus Russell does as we speak.
Although they are teammates and will certainly need to work together to accomplish a sound ground game for Oakland this year, Michael Bush and Darren McFadden will be at each other's throats this preseason vying for the starting position. It is certain that with the dismissal of Justin Fargas, Oakland is looking for a new good man to take the bulk of the carries and lead this team to glory.
McFadden has never lived up to the hype of being the best running back from the class of 2008, with his ongoing injury issues and fumble issues. So far, his best contributions have come via the receiving game, in contrast to Michael Bush who currently owns the Raiders previous three 100 yard rushing games. Bush has also shown a knack for making those break-away runs that McFadden was supposed to show his skills on. By all accounts, the leader of this race should be Bush as he has more between-the-tackles potential. In the NFL you need to have a back who can punch it up the gut, and McFadden is more a change-up, outside type runner who wants to beat you around the corner. Plus in the five games where Bush has been given the ball 15 or more times, Bush has averaged 134.8 yards from scrimmage.
I've heard this question asked so much over the past few weeks: Who are the starting WR's this year? The good news is it's a wide open competition between players who all have tremendous upside. The bad news is that they are all, for the most part, inexperienced in the NFL.
However, they are not all inexperienced as football players. Louis Murphy won two NCAA National Championships during his time as a Florida Gator. He also showed glimpses into a bright future outperforming many rookie wide receivers of other teams in 2009. Johnnie Lee Higgins was expected to make an impact in last year's receiving corp., the trouble was, Higgins got blown up in the first game of the year by Chargers safety Eric Weddle and then when he finally did get over that shoulder injury, he got smashed in the face in Pittsburgh on an illegal hit by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy. It was a setback for Higgins, who now enters his fourth NFL season as the Raiders most experienced NFL receiver.
The Raiders WR's of 2010 will feature two more Higgins type talents with 2009's UDFA Nick Miller expected to return to action, and the addition of fourth round pick Jacoby Ford. Miller was nicknamed "Mr. Darkhorse" for his outstanding performance in the 2009 offseason activities and the early part of the preseason; however he never fully recovered from a broken shin. His potential showcased last season was enough to keep him around for another stint. Ford is expected to be used exclusively in the return game, but his potential is also bursting at the seams as a wide receiver. With a little bit of developmental work on route running, he could be a featured deep threat for Oakland.
Todd Watkins made some big time plays for Oakland last year. Both plays that come to my immediate memory converted huge third downs, one against the Kansas City Chiefs in week two, and one against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 13. During his first season at BYU, Watkins totaled 52 receptions for 1042 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged a Mountain West Conference record 94.7 yards per game, and averaged 20 yards per catch. Following that season, he was named a first team all MWC and honorable mention All-American. Sports Illustrated named him the best deep threat in the nation. In Oakland, Watkins abilities are highly underrated, but could come in handy in those much needed third down situations.
All these guys aside, my projected starters this year are Darrius Heyward-Bey and Chaz Schilens. Heyward-Bey is said to have made significant improvements to his game and showcased his newfound hands on the Raiders media day OTA practice last Wednesday. Schilens has yet to put on his running shoes this year, but had a tremendous offseason in 2009 in which it's been said that he did not drop a single pass. One thing for sure, as Jason Campbell recently put it, "It's a young football team, but at the same time, we have a lot of speed." Speed and QB timing will be the key to success for the Raiders 2010 receivers.
Several position are going to be wide open along the offensive line this year, however, I'd expect the starting line-up to be similar to the one that ended the season last year, except with Robert Gallery returning to left guard, and his replacement, Langston Walker finding his natural position back at right tackle.
The thing about the offensive line that makes it different this year will be the competition that the back-ups provide as they attempt to make themselves well known commodities. LT Mario Henderson and RT Langston Walker will have a big time challenge from offensive tackle back-ups, Khalif Barnes and rookie Jared Veldheer. Right guard Cooper Carlisle, I suspect, will have significant competition from rookie Bruce Campbell as well as veteran G/C Chris Morris. While the line may not be exactly what the doctor ordered, the competition will create better play than many outsiders project.
2009 rookie Matt Shaughnessy made a name for himself in the second half of the 2009 season filling in for recently released DE Greg Ellis. Odds are in his favor to start at the position at the beginning of the 2010 season, but odds don't always come through in Vegas, so why would they always come through in Alameda?
Shaughnessy and returning starter Richard Seymour will have heavy competition from the very competitive rookie Lamarr Houston, who comes from the #1 ranked NCAA run defense, as well as fourth year pro Jay Richardson, who is quietly becoming a steady competitor with the Raiders organization. Quentin Groves, who I believe will end up playing DE, and UDFA out of Cincinnati Alex Daniels will be giving Houston and Richardson a run for their money as back-ups on the squad.
The Raiders brought in a plethora of linebackers this year and brought the total on the squad this year to 11. With only three available positions in the 4-3 defense, somebody is going to be the odd man out. There are some new faces in the mix like Kamerion Wimbley and Travis Goethel. Then there are some veterans like last year's starters Ricky Brown and Thomas Howard. Also in the mix will be 2009 rookies Slade Norris and David Nixon. Trevor Scott finished the 2009 season as a weak-side starting linebacker, but he has his work cut out for him facing a high level of competition that will be looking to take his place at every bump in the road.
Right now, the projected starters would be Scott, 2010 rookie Rolando McClain in the middle, and the strong-side LB would be Kamerion Wimbley. I expect Wimbley's position to be the one in highest doubt, being that he is new to the team and will be challenged strongly by both Howard and Brown, two guys who started at his position in 2009.
Last year, this position was split between Michael Huff and Hiram Eugene. Both guys are good players, but the trouble is, each one has what the other one lacks. Michael Huff is supposed to be the guy who is good in coverage, and Eugene is supposed to be the sure tackler that the defense can depend on to stop the run. The wildcard of this group is Mike Mitchell, the 2009 second round pick from Ohio University. Mitchell has great range on the field, good vision, and he is sure to be a solid tackler at this level.
Throw in one of head coach Tom Cable's favorites from the 2009 offseason, Jerome Boyd as well as newcomer from Michigan Stevie Brown and you got yourself a good old fashioned wide open competition. My personal favorite at this point is Mike Mitchell. I'd love to see a Branch/Mitchell combination in the deep secondary for Oakland. With Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Johnson, who are both good in coverage, tackling, and run support playing the cornerback positions it could mark the return of the "Soul Patrol" in the Raiders secondary come 2010.
This competition where no one is safe will result in positive results for the Oakland Raiders moving forward. The competition will create character amongst the brothers on this team who will battle together as soldiers in 2010. Each player will push the other to their limit in offseason activities and training camp. These guys are all competitors and they are all NFL caliber talents. They will all want to be on the field just as much as their counterparts do. It's going to be fun to watch how this whole thing shakes out during the four preseason games. The Raiders 2010 offseason has given Raider Nation a legitimate reason to be excited for the upcoming season.
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