Postcard from camp: Raiders
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
Raiders' training camp is located in Napa Valley in the center of wine country. The Napa Valley Marriott houses the Raiders during camp, and the practice fields are on the backside of the hotel adjacent to a middle school. The weather is absolutely beautiful with temperatures in rising into the 80's without a cloud in sight. The camp is closed to the public, but the camp is full of players' loved ones as the team host Family Day during the evening session.
1. JaMarcus Russell is growing up. The Raiders' franchise quarterback has made significant strides as a passer, and his burgeoning confidence is reflected in the improved accuracy he has displayed throughout this camp. Instead of attempting to force throws into tight windows as he did a season ago, Russell is quickly identifying the second or third option in the route progression, and his willingness to take check down shows that he has a better grasp of the offense. "The more reps that I get, the more comfortable that I become in the offense," said Russell.
Young quarterbacks often underestimate the importance of keeping the offense in manageable situations, so Russell's increased reliance on his underneath receivers shows that he is beginning to mature into better decision maker in the pocket. Though offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will surely unleash more deep balls this season to take advantage of Russell's extraordinary arm strength, the Raiders' offense has a chance become more balanced due to their young signal caller's growth.
In addition, Russell has grown into the role of being a team leader. After missing most of training camp last season, Russell spent the offseason earning the respect of his teammates by diligently working in the weight room and film room. "I've been trying to show my teammates that I'm committed," said Russell. "We worked together all offseason, and I think that by being around every day I've been able to earn the respect of my guys."
2. The defense will have to lead the way. If the Raiders are to realize their playoff aspirations, their defense will have to blaze the path to the postseason. Though the 22nd-rated defense allowed 4.8 yards per carry on the ground and surrendered 20 runs over 20 yards last season, the unit should be vastly improved, and has a chance return to the ranks of the elite due to the offseason additions of DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson. As a two-time Pro Bowler, Hall will team with Nnamdi Asomugha to form arguably the top cornerback tandem in the league. And Wilson's presence in the box allows Michael Huff to move to back into his natural free safety position. Although those moves appear designed to shore up the Raiders' pass defense, they actually allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the freedom to play an assortment of eight-man fronts in conjunction with bump-man coverage to clog running lanes.
The unit is also experimenting with more blitzes and pressures to take advantage of athleticism of linebackers Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison. The duo has consistently made plays the past two seasons, but a more aggressive pressure package should catapult them into stardom. Howard, who finished with six interceptions -- including two returned for scores -- has the speed to be a difference maker as a rusher while Morrison's instinctive nature at the position should be enhanced by playing in a more aggressive scheme.
Despite the good vibes emanating from the defense, the unit still has major question marks along the interior line. Gerrard Warren, Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands have enticing potential, but each has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career. Although they have been solid during camp, the team has to get good production from their interior defenders to take advantage of the outstanding talent that exists on the defensive side of the ball.
"We have great players," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. "We just need to get them on the same page, so that they play great."
3. Something is not right about Javon Walker. The Raiders' marquee free agent signee has looked sluggish throughout camp, and reports have surfaced in recent days about Walker contemplating retirement. "He talked to me, and expressed that it was something that he was thinking about doing," said Kiffin.
After wrestling with the decision for a couple of days, Walker decided to stick with football, and practiced twice during double days for the first time on Saturday. Though he has yet to show the explosiveness that made him a Pro Bowler in 2004, Kiffin was encouraged that Walker took additional reps during the sessions and is hopeful that he will eventually work through the funk that he has been in since camp opened. "He wanted to come out and get some work in," said Kiffin. "He was not working as hard as he had been, so it was good to see him come out and work on his skills."
After watching Walker in two practices, there is no way that he is ready to handle the physical or mental stress of being the Raiders' "go-to-guy". He may regain his confidence and explosiveness during the preseason, but I wouldn't have high hopes of seeing Walker as a major contributor this season.