We are less than a month away from training camp starting for every NFL team and less than six weeks from kickoff of the preseason. After an impressive draft from top to bottom and huge spending around the league in free agency, there will be some interesting training camp battles that are significant on each team. Some players who once made a difference may not make the team and others might just fall further down the depth chart. One team that has a lot of competition in the organization is the Oakland Raiders.
In his second week as GM of the Oakland Raiders, Reggie McKenzie fired coach Hue Jackson, who was obsessed with his control of the team after the passing of Al Davis. Mark Davis and Amy Trask gave McKenzie full authority to do as he pleased with the organization and he wasted little time getting rid of Jackson. Not sure if Jackson rubbed him wrong during the interview process or not, but I can only agree with the decision McKenzie made. Cleveland Browns GM Mike Holmgren kept Eric Mangini as head coach in his first year as GM, but let him go after that one season, after realizing Mangini didn’t run things how he wanted the organization ran. McKenzie probably didn’t want to suffer from the same mistake Holmgren made, so he found his own coach in former Broncos Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen.
After letting go of several key players in Michael Bush, Stanford Routt, Kamerion Wimbley, Kevin Boss and Chris Johnson, the Oakland Raiders had a mediocre draft and free agency period, leaving several starting jobs up for grab. We will center our attention at some key position battles the Raiders will have in training camp and which players might be the odd man out, probably leading to them getting cut.
1. Second String QB - Terrelle Pryor vs Matt Leinart
The first training camp battle that’ll brew for the Silver and Black is the backup quarterback position spot. Carson Palmer is clearly the starter in Oakland, but the second spot on the depth chart is somewhat wide open. With new Offensive Coordinator Gregg Knapp bringing his Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) to Oakland, which he ran with the Houston Texans, Matt Leinart is the immediate favorite to win the spot because of his familiarity with the system. Leinart spent the last two seasons in Houston (Knapp as OC one year, Kyle Shanahan the year before), and was Knapp’s backup QB last year. He has a ton of understanding of the system and the playbook. But probably the best thing about the ZBS is it features a lot of bootlegging, leading to the QB being out of the pocket for a significant amount of snaps. That might benefit Terrelle Pryor with his athleticism and big arm. The ZBS eventually opens up the offense as the OL has the same movement in running plays and passing downs, fooling defenses with playaction and looking for the homerun pass down field. The Raiders have a ton of speed, so getting down field won’t be a problem. More so of the QB getting the ball to them. Pryor struggles with accuracy, but has a bigger arm than Leinart. Both will see significant time in the preseason, so we will see who wins the backup role fair and square.
2. Second String RB - Taiwan Jones vs Mike Goodson
Of all the players the Raiders let go this offseason, Michael Bush might be the one they miss the most. He was arguably the best backup RB in the NFL, and with McFadden’s injury history, Bush saw significant playing time and capitalized on his opportunities. The battle between Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson may not receive a lot of attention primarily because of the rumors of the Raiders seeking free agent running back Cedric Benson. If that transaction happens, then it is clear who the backup RB on the depth chart will be. Jones and Goodson will have to duke it out for who will be the third string RB, and which one of them may only see playing time on special teams. Both are speed backs, but so is McFadden. If Benson is signed, he adds a new dimension to what Oakland needs, and that is a bruiser who can run between the tackles. However, Oakland doesn’t have much cap. It will be interesting to see what the verdict is on this one.
3. First String FB - Marcel Reece vs Owen Schmitt
Because Marcel Reece has such a dynamic skill set, I doubt he gets cut if he is outperformed during training camp. Reece can run the ball, block and has great hands, as he was a WR at the University of Washington. After attending several games and viewing tape on him, I think he is best in the screen game. However, the ZBS features a run-blocking fullback. That is where Owen Schmitt has the edge on Reece. Schmitt has been a great blocker since his days at West Virginia. It is not every year that a team takes a FB in the 2nd round. Schmitt was drafted there for a reason. According to Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times, with Schmitt as the leading fullback, the Seattle Seahawks’ RBs averaged 4.4 YPC when he was there and LeSean McCoy had the best year of his career last season with Schmitt blocking for him, averaging almost five yards per carry. Schmitt might be a package FB, but that’ll be too obvious. The Raiders still don’t have a starting tight end, so I can see them using Reece at TE, as he has reliable hands and so many elements to his game. I’d consider it a win-win situation.
4. Fifth String WR - Louis Murphy vs Rod Streater
Once the Raiders only had one productive wide receiver. His name was Louis Murphy, and it was during the 2009 and 2010 season. The Raiders drafted Murphy in the 4th round of the 2009 NFL draft, the same year they drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey 7th overall. Heyward-Bey was thought of to be a bust after two below average seasons, but after a breakout season in 2011, catching over 60 balls and 25 yards short of 1,000, Heyward-Bey became the go-to WR in Oakland. Murphy was doomed with injuries since the start of last year's training camp, forcing him to miss seven games in 2011. While injured, 2011 5th round draft pick Denarius Moore stole the spotlight in Oakland, leaving even less room for Louis Murphy. Not long ago, one can argue that Oakland had one of the worst WR cores in the NFL. Today, they have one of the most unique cores. Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and rookie Juron Criner are the first four options at WR for Oakland. Undrafted rookie WR Rod Streater from Temple University has been gaining a lot of attention during Oakland’s mini-camps and OTA’s. If he does not make the team in Oakland, I am sure some team around the league can use him elsewhere. Streater and Murphy have similar attributes. The biggest advantage on Streater’s side is he is two inches taller than Murphy. Not sure if that will help Streater make the team, but if he does, I believe Murphy will be cut. An athlete such as Murphy does not seem to be one content with being on the practice squad after showing early on what he is capable of in the NFL. This is a training camp battle to keep your eyes on in Oakland.
5. Second String CB - Shawntae Spencer vs DeMarcus Van Dyke vs Chimdi Chekwa
The biggest weakness in Oakland is hands down the Cornerback position. Oakland released both of last years’ starting corners in Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson. They added free agents Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer to fill in the vacant spot they created. But that was no significant upgrade. If Ron Bartell is healthy after suffering a broken bone in his neck last season, which caused him to miss 15 games, I believe he can be a top ten cornerback in the league. He was hurt in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, in what looked like an injury that could have ended his career. Today, he told reporters that he is almost 100 percent, and was the best CB on the field during mini-camps and OTAs this year. That being said, I think Bartell has the only guaranteed starting spot on the depth chart at cornerback. The second spot is completely vacant. Veteran Spencer may head into training camp as the starter, but it would be no element of surprise if DeMarcus Van Dyke or Chimdi Chekwa was the starter heading into the season. Van Dyke saw playing time early last season, though he struggled from the beginning as he had to guard Larry Fitzgerald in his first game as a pro. He gave up catches that should have been deflected and missed a few open-field tackles on Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells, but he showed vast improvements later in the season. But there were still a few struggles that were easily displayed, as he wouldn’t attack balls that he had the advantage on intercepting. As for Chekwa, he was the most exciting of the bunch to watch last season. Chekwa only saw playing time in four games last year, due to a season-ending shoulder injury, but he impressed in his short amount of time on the field. He first saw action in Week 3 against the New York Jets. In the game, of course the Oakland Raiders were running man coverage the whole time and Chekwa was on an island against Plaxico Burress. In four attempts, Burress caught one pass on Chekwa, which was a fade in the corner of the end zone. Despite having great coverage on the play, Burress used his height advantage on Chekwa (6’0 vs 6’5”) and made the catch. The most fascinating play Chekwa made of the game was on 4th down as Jets QB Mark Sanchez tried to hit Burress on a quick slant and Chekwa broke it up. He also had one-on-one coverage the following week against a better WR in New England Patriots’ Wes Welker. I attended the game and this was the matchup I focused on the most. Welker finished the game with nine receptions for over 150 yards and four of the nine catches were against Chekwa out of six targets. Three out of Welker’s four receptions on Chekwa were out routes, one for a touchdown. Chekwa had good position on a couple of the catches, but Tom Brady put the ball where only his receiver could catch the ball. All of that being said, I rightfully believe a healthy Bartell and healthy Chekwa will leave training camp as the starting cornerbacks in Oakland. Will be another interesting battle to pay attention to.