Jon Gruden really was tested at this crucial position when talented starter Jeff George went down for the season after playing in only four full games. In '99, Gruden will have a new veteran in the huddle. The Raiders signed Rich Gannon to be the starter, and Wade Wilson returns in the role of backup. Gannon makes good decisions and should be more productive under Gruden's system, and the hope is that his mobility will lead to durability. Gruden is banking that Gannon's teammates will have more faith in him than they did in George.
Look for the Raiders to make some adjustments by finding a feature back while keeping big play Napoleon Kaufman as a change of pace back. Kaufman's durability has become a problem. Veteran Harvey Williams has lost a step as a runner and is only effective as a receiver. Rookie FB Jon Richie found his niche as a decent blocker and solid receiver. The Raiders also signed Zack Crockett off the free agent wires and expect him to upgrade the running attack with his blocking ability.
Veteran Tim Brown is the leader both in production and attitude finished his sixth consecutive 1000+yard receiving season for Oakland. Home run threat James Jett is not known as possession guy but a touchdown guy who gets huge yards on fewer catches. Former Eagle Chris T. Jones was signed to strengthen the receiving corps. Productive Terry Mickens is a free agent and may still sign elsewhere for more money. Reserve Rodney Williams is a raw talent that was a training camp star last year and is the challenge that Fred Bilitnekof must develop. Backup Kenny Shedd contributes on special teams.
A Pro Bowler just a season ago, Rickey Dudley didn't produce as expected in 1998. In Gruden's offensive system the tight end is a critical component and Dudley is a prototype is size and speed. The No. 2 TE is Derek Brown, who is a marginal blocker and a solid receiver. This position could use depth and a competitor to push Dudley.
This unit was a weak link from Week 1 through the end of the season, allowing 67 sacks on the season. Rookie Mo Collins was forced into learning the LOT position in an on the job training situation rather than the preferred apprenticeship. It looks as if Pat Harlow's chronic back problems may force his retirement. Veteran tough guy Steve Wisniewski remains a force at LOG on the interior alongside OC Barret Robbins to give Oakland strength up the middle. ROG could use an upgrade from the abilities of Daryl Ashmore, who finished the season next to ROT Lincoln Kennedy. Kennedy was not as effective as he is capable of and would be better if a quality ROG can be obtained to shore up the front five.
This front four was a major reason that Willie Shaw's defensive troops dramatically rose from the bottom of the league's standings to near the top. DT Darrell Russell earned his Pro Bowl selection as a true force in the middle. Lining up next to Russell was veteran Russell Maryland at nose tackle. Maryland was a "plugger" up front, who toughed it out all season with an injured shoulder. "Rush end" Lance Johnstone performed well, leading the team in sacks with 11. The other DE position was manned by James Harris, with relief from veteran Pat Swilling-a position that definitely needs upgrading. After tragically losing top draft pick Leon Bender, who died prior to reporting to the Raiders, DT Grady Jackson stepped up with a strong season. Chuck Osborne gives Oakland nice depth up the middle.
MLB Greg Biekert became Willie Shaw's defensive quarterback and was tremendously productive. Richard Harvey had a falling out with Mike Ditka in New Orleans and played outstanding this season for the Raiders. On the other side, Terry Wooden and James Folston split time and provided steady play but neither is the long-term answer. Mike Morton was demoted this season and the free agent will shop elsewhere for a starting job. Developmental OLB Travian Smith has a future in Oakland and will continue to make big hits and plays on special teams while learning his defensive position as a reserve. This segment needs depth and a true starter on the outside.
This was by far the most improved group on the team with the addition of first-rounder Charles Woodson and free agent Eric Allen. When Allen went down with a knee injury the entire defensive mentality changed. Nickel cover guy Marquis Walker was improving but got burned in coverage when forced to step in for Allen. Eric Turner directed the secondary from his free safety perch and was playing some of the best ball of his career before a season-ending knee injury. SS Anthony Newman was solid in run support and a steady player who also missed several games with injury. Albert Lewis will probably retire, leaving Louis Riddick and James Trapp as reserve safeties.
Punter Leo Araguz was solid, although not quite as productive as in '97. Araguz was forced into double duty, handling kickoffs for Greg Davis after his groin pull. The Raiders signed PK Michael Husted to take care of the kicking duties. This will be an upgrade from last season, where the kicking game was often a disaster.