Flying Under The Radar
This off season the Raiders have taken a new, on many accounts, sensible path garnering very little attention from the mainstream media. For those fans that like controversy, big ticket free agent splashes, and a steady stream of unfounded rumors it would be considered uneventful or even dull. Here are a few random thoughts and trends that I've noticed:
(1) A STAB AT STABILITY:
The first major decision this off season was retaining Tom Cable as Head Coach. Once Cable got settled into his new role as Head Coach during last season, there was a prevalent uptick on player performance, effort, execution, and results. This was especially evident in the way the Raiders closed out the 2008 campaign with impressive back to back wins over a streaking Texan team and a potentially playoff bound Bucs squad. Instead of the players going through the motions in a difficult season, the team rallied behind Cable with their guns a blazin'.
Al Davis and Tom Cable seem to have a solid working relationship based on trust, respect, and open communication. Cable's straightforward, egoless leadership style that stresses players fighting like hell for each other reminds me of John Madden. The fact that Cable openly seeks out Davis for counsel and has no wandering eye for other coaching vacancies makes this relationship more compatible and productive.
(2) REWARDING YOUR OWN:
The resigning of Pro Bowlers Nnamdi Asomugha and Shane Lechler sent a clear message to the team and fans. The message was that as an organization, the Raiders will compensate, recognize, and retain players who exemplify excellence, leadership, loyalty, and proven performance.
(3) RETAIN KEY PLAYERS:
Other resignings that were important; CB Chris Johnson who started opposite of Nnamdi as soon as MeAngelo Hall was shown the door. CJ was a very pleasant, unexpected surprise. His performance in the last 8 games of the season was remarkable when you consider he hadn't ever started in the NFL and the opposing QBs relentlessly attempted to pick on him by staying away from #21's side of the field. Another resigning that was critical to special teams was the retention of Isaiah Ekejiuba who is arguably one of the very best special teams player in the entire NFL. You need to be a die hard to appreciate Ekejiuba's fine play and to even know about him. From a continuity standpoint, the resigning of OG Cooper Carlisle was huge.
(4) BUILDING THROUGH YOUTH:
Instead of throwing benjamins at high profile free agents this off season, the Raiders coaching staff seems confident with a good core of young players. Some of these young players have yet to establish themselves for a host of reason such as lack of playing time, lack of starts, injuries, and various other reasons. The continued development of key players like JaMarcus Russell (QB), Darren McFadden (RB), Michael Bush (RB), Oren O'Neil (FB), Jonnie Lee Higgins (WR), Chaz Schillens (WR), Zack Miller (TE), Mario Henderson (OT), Tyvon Branch (S), Ricky Brown (LB), Jay Richardson (DE), Trevor Scott (DE) is paramount to success in 2009.
(5) ESTABLISHMENT OF TEAM FIRST ATTITUDE:
Ridding the locker room of a losing culture is achieved by releasing players who either underperformed or didn't buy into the Cable's leadership. Guys like Kwame Harris (poor performance), Kalimba Edwards (aging PT vet), Gibril Wilson (cap considerations), and Justin Griffith (injury concerns) were cut loose. Players such as Fargas, Gallery, Walker, and Warren all willingly restructured their contracts to free up cap space for the team.
(6) AN EYE TOWARDS THE DRAFT:
The #7 pick in the draft should be a key building block for the Raiders short term and long term success. I have narrowed down my short list to the following candidates;
At the very top of my "wish" list is B.J. Raji (DT, Boston College). I base this selection on a combination of talent and need. B.J. is a 6'1', 325 prototype NT immovable object that would plug holes, collapse the pocket, and be your classic space eater. The most pressing need for the Raiders to take the next step up the competitive ladder is to improve on run defense. Until teams stop gashing us by running the ball down our throats, it will be difficult to have sustained success as a team.
A very close 2nd on my "wish" list is Eugene Monroe (OT, Virginia). Monroe would be considered a perfect fit for Cable's zone blocking scheme. He is very similar to 1st year player Ryan Clady of Denver in terms of his agility, athleticism, size (6'5, 315), and top shelf footwork. If the Raiders take Monroe, I could foresee him competing against Henderson for the starting LT slot with the "loser" manning the RT position.
If Raji and Monroe are snatched up before the 7th pick, I would lean towards Michael Oher (OT, Ole Miss). Oher's overall skill set is extraordinary but he would be more of a hybrid OT (power drive blocking and zone blocking). Oher also might be more suited to play RT instead of LT. In terms of draft value, a LT is above a RT.
Many Raider fans are clamoring for WR Michael Crabtree who has been one of the most productive pass catchers in the history of college football. I'm not bullish on Crabtree for a few reasons. First and foremost, I don't believe WR is a more pressing need than building our lines. Secondly, in my opinion, the WR position is not a good value pick this high due to the nature of the position's lack of impact. Thirdly, I have concerns about any player who recently had major surgery and a screw placed in his foot. Last but not least, it is a matter of priorities. In my estimation, WRs are dessert while the OL/DL is the "meat and potatoes" of a good team. With a fairly sizable list of positions that need to be either upgraded, filled, or have question marks (OT, C, DT, DE, SLB, S, WR), the Raiders need to focus on the trenches with their only 1st round pick.