• [Article 46]Top 5 Stories Entering Oakland Raiders 2014 Training-Camp (pt. 3)

    Longtime USC coach and winner of 4 National Championships, John McKay, said “the game is won in the trenches.” In part 2 of this post, I described how Mckenzie went about improving the offensive line. He also had a major transformation project on the defensive line in an effort to create an effective pass rush. The defense as a whole had 38 sacks–add to that a paltry 68 hits on quarterbacks in 2013 and its quick to see the Raiders were deficient in this area.

    The thirty-eight sacks ranked them 18th in the league, tied with the 49ers. But outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, who regularly rush the quarterback in their 3-4 defense accounted for 17 of those sacks. The Raiders, on the other hand, had to blitz heavy and often to fabricate those same sacks. This approach was effective all the way up the the Eagles game where Nick Foles torched them as the Raiders failed to put pressure on him. In the second half of the season, the pass rush, like much of the defense, had lost it’s steam due to two primary factors–no pass rush from the line, nor depth to rotate in fresh players.

    While ultimately disappointing, last season was a major improvement over the 2012 squad’s 25 sacks led by players that did not play for the Raiders in 2013; Seymour, Shaughnessy, Bryant & fan favorite Philip Wheeler. Similary, they are entering the 2014 season missing last year’s sack leader, Lamar Houston (6-sacks). While many Raider fans, myself included, were disappointed to see him leave in free-agency, it’s the nature of the beast. It was not, however, the monumental loss that media pundits make it out to be. He had a great motor and was an effective rush-stopper on the edge, but last year he was asked to step-up as a leader. They needed him to be a consistent force that, drawing double teams and generating 9+ sacks. In that, he failed–and going in the opposite direction made media comments that he was unlikely to return. Ultimately, he is a solid contributor, but not the leader we needed him to be or the leader he wanted to be paid like. Enter Justin Tuck!

    A Notre Dame alumni, Justin played for years behind Michael Strahan before taking over for the retiring Hall of Famer. Coming off of an 11 sack season, he is the type of leader that the Raiders need.  Immediately, upon signing, he started to recruit for the Raiders, wooing Woodley (signed shortly later on the same day) and Hatcher, a free-agent from the Dallas Cowboys. The Raiders continued to beef up the line with depth and pass rushers by signing Antonio Smith from the Texans and drafting DT Justin Ellis in the 4th round and DE Shelby Harris in the 7th round. Both should provide depth. Smith, Tuck and Woodley combined for 21 sacks last year. The entire defensive line rotation combined for 21 in 2013. Like the offensive line, the defensive line will enter the year with more talent and depth. So too, will the linebackers

    Fully expect mad scientist, Jason Tarver, the Raiders defensive coordinator to continue to blitz from all angles to create pressure and keep quarterbacks guessing. Critical to the chess game is 1st round draft-pick, Khalil Mack. Mack is considered one of the most versatile players coming out of college. Rushing the quarterback by lining up on the D-line or as an outside linebacker, he racked 10 1/2 sacks last year in his final year of college. The well spoken Mack has expressed his desire to be a wild-card–lining up all over the field and to learn from Woodley (57 career sacks) and Tuck (60.5 career sacks). I try not to get too excited about rookies because while their full of potential, they ain’t done shit yet! That said, the last time I was this excited about a rookie was when the Raiders drafted future hall of famer, Sir Charles Woodson.

    The players McKenzie brought in should lead to a huge improvement for the pass rush. Same goes for the offensive line. If there is one issue that many have brought up with the free-agent pick ups, it is not talent, but age. That, I will discuss in part 4.

  • [Article 15]Top 5 Stories Entering Oakland Raiders 2014 Training-Camp (pt. 2)

    In part  one of this article, we went over the talent infusion of the quarterback group, namely Matt Schaub and Derek Carr. Neither has played well absent a strong offensive line. Out salary-cap purgatory, the Raiders entered the off-season with a whopping $69 million in salary-cap space and went to work on fixing an O-line that allowed Matt Flynn no time in his one start in 2013–the Redskins sacked him 7 times.

    Anchoring the Blind-Side
    A revamped offensive line hinges on the play of Donald Penn.

    Last season’s early emergence of Terrelle Pryor masked a line devoid of talent and depth. At times it appeared there was a weekly carousal–rotating players, filling gaps and promoting practice squad guys like Lamar Mady. The group faced disaster even before the season started when its most dominant player, left tackle Jared Veldheer, went down in the preseason with a torn triceps. 2012′s group rag-tag group was not much better. Carson Palmer’s stats were padded by the fact that he was always playing from behind against a lot of prevent defenses. He was left unpressured 69% of the time.

    The 2014 off-season did not start much better as Veldheer, a free-agent and anchor of the Raider line and, possibly, their best offensive player signed with Arizona amid rumors that McKenzie did not see him as the stalwart player fans and media perceived. Then, as if on cue in a worst of worst comedy punch-lines, McKenzie’s back up plan, Rodger Saffold, a free-agent pick-up from the Rams failed a physical and the Raiders rescinded the contract. He went back to St. Louis, re-signed and passed their physical. Like shark-bait, that prompted a furor of Raider bashing, best overblown by perennial Raider basher Tim Kawakami’s article, Reggie McKenzie is Bombing as GM. Frankly, this was blown out of proportion by media heads looking to make a story. We all tuned in to ESPN, read the articles online, so we can’t blame them. McKenzie did not miss a beat and went on to put together a run-power blocking line that, if it stay’s healthy, will open up big lanes for Maurice Drew Jones and McFadden to rip through–opening up the play-action for Schaub.

    The line, more than any other group will face true competition for staring jobs and could feature as many as four new starters. McKenzie signed free-agents Austin Howard, an under-rated player from the Jets and Donald Penn who was cut from Tampa, but started every game over the last six seasons. In the draft he picked up 6′ 3″, 330 lb. guard Gabe Jackson who will compete for the starting right guard position. Add to this, last year’s 2nd round pick, Menelik Watson who will compete at right tackle and this O-line already has more depth, talent and power than any line in the last 3 years (maybe offensive coordinator, Greg Olson will be tempted to give McFadden a run outside the tackles).

    The key to the line will be the play of Donald Penn. This is a downgrade over Veldheer. He is 31-years old and is coming off of a down year. But, Penn has shown to be a powerful, reliable run-blocker in the past. Last season, in Tampa, he faced many of the same challenges that the Raiders did with a staph infection that sidelined Carl Nicks for the whole season. Growing up an L.A. Raider fan, he is motivated to bring back the nasty offensive line style in the mold of raiders of old.  This year has an opportunity to regain his 2010 pro-bowl form. If Penn can be relied upon, the Raiders will have a strong run-game that will open up a lot of passing lanes.

    Come back for part 3 where we switch to the defensive side of the ball.


  • Featured Image[Article 13]Top 5 Stories Entering Oakland Raiders 2014 Training-Camp (pt.1)

    Going into training camp, it’s a well-worn theme to say that this season feels different. Yet, after failing to produce a winning season in eleven years, Raider fans feel the team is better. This is the third year for General Manager Reggie McKenzie. Where the last two years were coined deconstruction–last year being salary-cap purgatory, analysts call this year “year one of the reconstruction” and the 2014 off-season sure felt like it.  Not since the Al Davis days have I been excited about free-agent additions (Charles Woodson being the sole exception but mostly for nostalgic reasons). Add to that a full slate of draft picks–where the Raiders stood pat and drew a lucky hand in the first two rounds (wierd right?).

    McKenzie Introduces Dennis Allen as the new coach of the Oakland Raiders
    McKenzie Introduces Dennis Allen as the new coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2012.

    For the first time in the McKenzie era, as a fan, I could visualize his game-plan for the reconstruction of the Raiders and their return to the days where Oakland Raiders football players took the field with a swag otherwise known as “The Raiders’ Mystique”.

    In a 5 part series, I will discuss the top off-season stories that shape the Raiders going into training camp this Friday, July 25th. Let’s get going with the most important position in the NFL.

    The Quarterback Situation

    Last year, the Raiders went into training camp with Matt Flynn leading a unit that included; fan favorite, Terrelle Pryor, a then considered “draft steal”, Tyler Wilson and undrafted rookie Matt McGloin–initially a camp arm whom, yet, became another scrappy fan-favorite and eventual starter.  We all hoped Wilson would be the “steal” he was touted to be and beat out Flynn or that Pryor’s potential would materialize.  The group’s play can be best described as a firecracker dud–a few sparks that get us kids excited, but leaves us utterly disappointed.

    In this area, McKenzie was quick and decisive. He traded a 6th round pick for Matt Schaub, giving the Raiders an immediate upgrade over any player at the position last year. Going into the off-season, Pryor wanted out. Most assumed he would eventually be cut, but McKenzie was shrewd, held tight and traded Pryor for a 7th rounder to Seattle (later used to draft SS Jonathan Dowling)

    In 2013, Carr threw for 5083 yards, 50 touchdowns and only 8 intereceptions.
    In 2013, Carr threw for 5083 yards, 50 touchdowns and only 8 intereceptions.

    .  While Pryor was explosive as a dual threat QB, he just did not show consistent accuracy. Then came the draft where they were just plain lucky and had Carr, a Raiders pre-draft favorite and by most accounts–a first round talent–fall to them in the second round.

    On paper, this is the best group the Raiders have had going into training camp in recent memory: Matt Schaub, Derek Carr, Matt McGloin and Trent Edwards. While many fans hope Carr beats out Schaub, remember that train of thought embraces a bad start by the Raiders and the benching of Schaub for Carr. A good season for us fans includes Schaub playing to his pre-2013 form and giving us the best QB play since Gannon.

    At a minimum, this is going to be a competitive group.  Matt Schaub knows how to win and that starts with a winning work-ethic. This alone will mold Carr into a better QB than if, say, he came into last year’s QB group. As much as anything else, he will learn from Schaub what it takes to command an offense. This works both ways. Nothing lights up a veteran quarterback like a hot new rookie! And, while Carr is lighting up off-season work-outs, let’s not forget that he’s not ready for prime-time. He struggled as a Bulldog last year when throwing under pressure.

    Schaub has the ability and, in my opinion, will provide the Raiders with solid quarterback play akin to Alex Smith of Kansas City. Last year, the Texans were bad all around and had terrible quarterback protection. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s scheme will

    Olson excited to have Matt Schaub running his offense.
    Olson excited to have Matt Schaub running his offense.

    rely heavy on the run with a lot of play-action. This is where Schaub performs at his best.  Helping here, the Raiders revamped the offensive line. That is where we will pick up in Part 2, tomorrow.