On part of my minicamp tour, I recently spent time with the Oakland Raiders at their summer home in Napa, California.
And several things stood out to me during my time there.
This is a young football team with an interesting mix of veteran and younger assistant coaches. For the first time in my eight years of coming to Napa, I think the Raiders finally have the right guy in Dennis Allen as a head coach. Why? I think he carries a presence about him. A confidence which seems to boil over to his players. And I’m not alone with my comments on Allen.
I spoke to a few executives since he was hired who told me that they expected him to be the next great young coach in the NFL. His background of working with good staffs and his ability to teach and command respect from players were cited as the reasons.
And general manager Reggie McKenzie has done a nice job of turning over the roster he inherited with younger developmental players. And while doing that, he has actually improved the salary cap situation ($5.87 million of room as of a few days ago, which isn’t bad considering the situation as of early March). However, there’s still work to be done to improve the talent level of the roster – especially on defense.
Here’s an overview of what I saw and more from both sides of the ball plus other insights which I’ve put together from talking to personnel executives:
This area is the clear strength of the team.
For those who thought QB Carson Palmer was washed up after last season, you’re off. Way off. He was literally on his couch at the time the Raiders acquired him and had no offseason with the Bengals. That helps explain the high amount of interceptions.
Now, he’s having a full offseason with the Raiders. And it shows.
Palmer still has very good arm strength and touch on the ball. He’ll force a few passes in there from time to time, as I saw up close and you could see during the first preseason game. However, that’s what makes him still a good quarterback – the willingness to make tough throws through traffic.
As I saw during my time at Texans camp last summer, Matt Leinart adjusted to the West Coast offense fairly well. Leinart had a tremendous practice the day I was there last week. He seems fairly comfortable playing under offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who clearly wanted him to be his backup QB for the second straight season.
The good thing is Palmer won't have to do it all by himself; he has a running back capable of making a difference.
After talking to RB Darren McFadden a bit after practice and watching the first preseason game, the backs might be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield quite a bit.
“Oh, yeah. Certainly. We’ve been all doing that since OTAs. You saw that today,” the fifth-year pro said. “It takes advantage of my speed.”
McFadden, who has missed 19 games over his first four seasons, also told me that he’s in the best shape of his career – and he certainly looks it.
“I was working out all the time before we got to camp," he told me.
Fourth-year RB Mike Goodson, who is slated to be McFadden’s backup, gave the team a scare the day before I arrived in Napa after being carted off with a neck injury. However, he was back the following week in practice. But second-year RB Taiwan Jones, who missed six games in his rookie season, is dealing with injury issues again. He has been sidelined most of camp due to a hamstring issue. When healthy, he’ll give the Raiders rare speed at the position. I happened to see a tape of his pro day workout. You won’t find many backs capable of hitting a big run at any time – he’s one of the few capable of doing it.
But speed on offense for the Raiders isn't exclusive to just running back.
The strength of the offense clearly is at wide receiver. The Raiders go a legit five-deep at the position. And they have speed, size, and versatility there.
The one concern is the lingering hamstring injury to second-year pro Denarius Moore. He has been dealing with the issue for several weeks. But because of that, UDFA WR Rod Streater, who was the team’s biggest surprise during OTAs, has gotten a chance at more practice reps. And Streater, who has good size (6’2” ½), has been great so far in camp. He had another tremendous practice the day I was there. So this begs the question; why wasn’t he drafted?
“Well, I only had 19 catches (at Temple). I had a quad injury a while back in my career. And I played at junior college for a while. So I can understand why I wasn’t drafted,” he told me. It’s a good thing that McKenzie attended his pro day at Temple earlier this year. As a few personnel executives said, Streater’s game tape wasn't overly impressive, so there wasn’t much of a reason to sign him after the draft unless you attended his pro day workout, which was very impressive.
Once Moore gets healthy, third-year WR Jacoby Ford will be the top backup. While Ford had a few bad drops during the first preseason game, he’s going to be a big part of the passing game. What has stood out about him since the Raiders drafted him is his willingness to go over the middle despite his size (under 5’9”), so I asked about that trait.
“I’ve always been like that. I figure nothing will come easy and I’m willing to do it,” he said. Ford caught at least three passes over the middle through traffic during the practice I attended.
And let’s not forget fourth-year pro Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is coming off his best season to date. His run-after-the-catch ability will come in handy for Knapp’s version of the WCO. Rookie Juron Criner might be fifth on the depth chart, but he’ll have a role this season. Criner was tremendous during Senior Bowl week earlier this year and has good size and hands.
The one concern on offense is the protection for Palmer. While some personnel evaluators might argue that the line is in the bottom half of all 32 in the NFL, it’s worth noting that four out of the five starters are back for the second straight season. And veteran G Cooper Carlisle is back playing in a zone scheme, which he and former Texan G Mike Brisiel are best fits for.
The bottom line is this offense has a chance to be very good – even special -- if all the key parts remain healthy.
Allen is going to have a major challenge on his hands trying to fix the defense.
What he’s inheriting is a squad which finished 29th overall in total defense, was bad against the run (27th/131.6 yards per game), and didn’t cover well (27th/251.4 yards per game). I know that some of my twitter followers (@caplannfl) have suggested that Allen’s system will be more disciplined. And while I agree with that to a degree (how could it be any worse?) compared to former defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan’s scheme, I think there’s a lack of talent at certain positions.
With the front-four, they’ll be solid up the middle with veterans Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. And fourth-year DT Desmond Bryant has turned out to be one of the most underrated backups at his position in the AFC. And they could move third-year DE Lamarr Houston inside for nickel situations. There’s certainly solid versatility from the inside players. But at end, the team has issues.
Other than fourth-year pro Matt Shaughnessy, the Raiders don’t have much in the pass-rushing department at the position. Seymour will get snaps at end, like he always does, but he’s far from a top-end pass rusher. Houston is known more for his ability to play the run than for his pass-rushing skills. I don’t see anyone behind those two who are capable of putting up consistent pressure or big sack totals. And that’s going to be a problem when you examine the group of cornerbacks. More on that situation at the bottom.
But everyone who follows the team knows the worst part of the defense over the past few seasons has been at linebacker. Well, that’s not entirely true. The cornerback position was bad last season. Even so, something had to be done at linebacker – and McKenzie did wind up adding a few players there.
Fourth-round pick Miles Burris, a favorite of the scouting community coming into this year’s NFL Draft, might the team’s best player out of this draft class. Burris, as I could clearly see even through a few drills, is very fluid in his movement and is easily able to turn his hips in coverage – two huge keys for going up against running backs and tight ends. He’s been filling in for WLB Aaron Curry (knees, on active/PUP list), who has been out all of camp. If Curry isn’t back within a week or so, it’s quite possible that Burris opens up the regular season in the starting lineup. SLB Phillip Wheeler, a former third-round pick (2008) for the Indianapolis Colts, has been an underachiever in his first four seasons. But some of his performance, according to a personnel source, could have been due to the scheme the Colts used on defense during his time with the team. Allen’s scheme, which is supposed to take on a more physical and aggressive style, could be a better fit for Wheeler.
And it’s not a secret that third-year MLB Rolando McClain has a big disappointment through his first two seasons. The former first-round pick (8th overall) needs to prove that he belongs on the field. While the team has no choice but to use him since there are no other realistic options, he can’t be the liability that he was last season. Since this revised scheme features more downhill movement for linebackers, the hope is that McClain will start to show that he was worthy of being a first-round pick. And he has been healthy and productive during training camp.
The secondary has talent, depth, and experience at safety among SS Tyvon Branch, FS Michael Huff, and key reserve Mike Mitchell. What I need to see if the cornerback tandem of Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, both 30 years old, is capable of holding up over 16 games. Both are known in scouting circles for their speed, but Spencer wasn’t much of a factor for the 49ers on defense over the past few seasons. The good thing is both have good size and starting experience. What’s behind them are developmental players such as DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa. Van Dyke, who played in 28 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, has a major upside. He’ll eventually start—it’s not a matter of if but a matter of when. What one personnel executive said he has to get stronger physically. Once he does, he’ll be ready to start full time.
In the end, if Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who is one of the NFL’s up and coming assistant coaches, have a major impact on the defense, this team could max out at 8 wins, but I think a realistic win total is around 5-6 for their first season.