There are certain colors, sensations, and sights in this world that when you see them your body just reacts in a visceral way. Something about the combination of purple and white with gold accents just makes me crazy. Lucky for me the Raiders won a Lombardi beating the snot out of the one NFL team with that color scheme.
On a completely unrelated topic, Friday marks the beginning of pseudo meaningful football for the Oakland Raiders, which means I need to be in mid season form. Unlike the team I do not get a training camp. Also unlike the team, I am not expected to be in shape and I surely reflect that reality. We are going to keep this week’s column nice and simple. No fancy projections or making large assumptions, instead I am going to focus on certain position battles and individuals I want to watch. Moreover, there are certain things I want to see from this team in order to start understanding how much progress they have made as an organizational culture, which is the hardest thing for any franchise to change.
I started with this for a very specific reason. We as Raiders fans have seen and in many ways embraced a franchise that is known for being counter culture, but that sense of individuality turned itself into complacency and mediocrity sadly. For years, the aging patriarch of the Raiders, Al Davis, did all he could to win one last Super Bowl, but his efforts fell short continuously and in the end turned a once proud and winning franchise, into a laughing stock that was no longer taken seriously. This is year three of the process to return the Raiders to glory and the first major step was a change in organizational culture. What this franchise needed most was to act and play like a professional organization. To set goals and achieve them in a way that is expected of professionals. For too long this team was based on huge emotional swings, based on complacent veterans, and lacking heart. I have been on the side of giving this regime three seasons for a principled reason, but now I want to see the changes and this is the first opportunity I have to witness them for myself. I expect that the vets will play, they will lead, and bring a certain calm which can only be described as professionalism to this young squad. I am sick and tired of being a laughing stock and if that means the Raiders need to become more normal to achieve that then so be it. Being counter culture is not enjoyable when you lose.
The Raiders are entering year three under defensive coordinator Jason Tarver and year two in the identical offense, although it should be noted there are some shared West Coast concepts that were in the Greg Knapp offense. All in all, I want to see both schemes show us some wrinkles. This is by far the most talented squads these coaches have had to scheme around and I want to see some small adaptations that reflect this reality. With an intelligent veteran such as Schaub I want to see diversity in the formations utilizing bunch sets, and small gimmicks to open up playmakers. Defensively I want to see the “mad scientist” go to work. That does not necessarily mean I want to see a lot of blitzing, but rather I want to see how he adapts his very flexible scheme to fit the individual skill sets of his players with an emphasis on Khalil Mack.
Simply put, I want to see Carr under pressure in a pro style offense. When you watch Carr’s college tape he progressively gets worse and worse dealing with the pass rush which is strange. However, as a red shirt freshman he ran a pro style offense under Pat Hill and although it featured a lot of shotgun, it used the play action pass to freeze linebackers the way NFL offenses do. Eventually he was put in a offense that was pass heavy, lacked play action, and he had a poor offensive line. This eventually made his eyes start looking at the pass rush and gave him happy feet. Many writers are saying Carr is looking revitalized. I want to see it for myself.
I really loved Jackson’s talent in the draft and I felt his early round one or two hype was a little much due to his poor pass blocking. What I want to see from him is growth in those skills. He is a bit of a dancing bear although sometimes he looks as if he may be a drunken dancing bear. In fact if you pull up his video from draftbreakdown.com the first play he ends up falling on his face in pass protection. Jackson is a behemoth of a man and the pairing of him and Austin Howard at the guard positions is a formidable duo, but in order to win the starting left guard job from Khalif Barnes he needs to show he is solid in pass protection. To piggy back this section, we should also quickly mention Donald Penn who is said to be moving well and Menelik Watson who is also impressing. Keep an eye on Wilson if nothing else than for me to say “I told you so”.
We all know of the injury difficulties that DJ Hayden is facing, but the world is not ending Raider Nation! I have long taken the stance that the Raiders have added some quality young depth that they are developing at this time. I am hesitant to think that Chimdi Chekwa has made huge strides this offseason, but I am willing to be impressed. Let us not forget that Chekwa was a four year starter at Ohio State University. Another young player with a huge opportunity to step up is TJ Carrie. The seventh round pick impressed me on tape and I believe he has some serious upside. He can play inside, outside, and has the physical tools. his college career was derailed by injuries, not a matter of success or talent. Keith McGill is another interesting name to watch. I cannot remember how many times I mocked McGill to the Raiders in round three or four and the fact it worked out is great for my ego, but more importantly the Raiders. Some in the scouting world do not have a lot of faith in his skill set, and the reports of him struggling has reinforced that. I want to see his role simplified. Line him up in press man coverage and let him have at the receivers.
Young Pass Rushers
There are a multitude of young pass rushers I want to see in this game and all preseason. Of course there is Khalil Mack. I am not going to spend time on Mack this one seems obvious to me. However I will talk about two other linebackers: Sio Moore and Miles Burris. Last year Sio showed some serious explosion off the edge, but he lacked any developed pass rushing moves. What I want to see specifically, is some sort of next step whether it is a counter move or some more advanced use of his hands. Many people do not consider Miles Buriss as a pass rusher, but he is a “jack of all trades” linebacker with pass rushing upside. He averaged consistent pass rushing numbers in college and with the talent on this team it may be time to see him start to use those moves. I want to see him in a Nascar package or even blitzing in a 34 defense.
Now, to the defensive ends. There are two in particular to watch out for. Ryan Robinson was an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State last season and came into the season as a tall, lanky, pass rusher that lacked physical maturity. The Raiders however did keep him over fan favorite David Bass whom was cut and subsequently added by the Chicago Bears. Of course the salt was added when he scored on a gimme fumble play while Robinson was on the practice squad. I want to see if Robinson has developed into a decent pass rusher. To be honest I was a little stunned that Robinson was behind the seventh round rookie Shelby Harris on the depth chart. Harris last season did not play in college due to off field issues, but he displayed a variety of moves while dominating as an undersized defensive tackle in division two football. I view him a Justin Tuck-esque role where he can be a three down defensive lineman while pass rushing from the inside in certain sets. He has bulked up to over 275 pounds and if his head is right he can be a solid player.
Wide Receiver Battles
I find the bottom half of the receiver group to be absolutely fascinating. Watching Little, Butler, Criner, Moore, and others battle it out will be intriguing due to the different skill sets. I think we as fans are still in for a shock in due time with this group. I loved Criner coming out of college, and he has all the physical skills to dominate in the air. I could go on and on about this group, but I have done that before. What I am really looking forward to seeing is someone jumping up and proving they belong which would definitely solidify what I believe is a talented receiving group.
do not get too caught up in preseason football. Do not worry about the score, but rather focus on individual success and gauge where these players are in the system. Then take what you see in this game and see if there is growth in each subsequent game. Keep your eyes on macro concepts and lets see if the basics are finally there for this team to succeed.