Have questions, need answers
The Raiders have plenty of talent fantasy-wise, but how will it all come together?
Leave it to Al Davis, the master at throwing money at a problem thereby creating another problem.
After spending more than $200 million in player contracts during the 2007-08 offseason, Davis thought he had the Raiders ready to make a move in the AFC West. He had young leaders in second-year coach Lane Kiffin and 2007 No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell; a future star running back in 2008 first-rounder Darren McFadden; one of the game's most talented (and underrated) cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha; and a bolstered roster thanks to all that money spent on past stars such as DeAngelo Hall, Javon Walker and Gibril Wilson.
In short, Davis' moves created more problems than they solved.
Beyond the issue of Oakland's registering a sixth consecutive losing season, during which time the team averaged four wins per year, the team then ran into salary-cap trouble after the 2008 campaign, a direct result of Davis' spending spree the previous spring. Asomugha was retained, but the team did so at the cost of three years at $45.3 million ($28.5 million guaranteed), tops in the game among cornerbacks. Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler landed a four-year, $16 million deal of his own ($9 million guaranteed), further complicating matters.
It prevented the team from making any significant upgrades to weak areas of the roster, not to mention it made Wilson a cap casualty; he was released in February and scooped up by the Dolphins less than a week later.
This is a franchise that needs a lot of work to get itself back to the top of its division. The core is still young -- Russell and McFadden remain, and the team added receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy through the draft -- but for every hint of upside to be found on this roster, there are twice as many questions.
What to look for in camp
Plenty of questions surround the Raiders' roster, but the most significant to fantasy owners is, will Darren McFadden finally step up and become the quality running back people expected he'd be when he was picked fourth overall last year?
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Justin Fargas and Michael Bush were no less effective in limited time, and it was Bush, surprisingly, who had the most impressive game all season, racing for 177 yards and two scores at Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers' stout defense in the regular-season finale. Fargas and Bush will provide McFadden with some healthy competition during training camp, though Cable and Raiders brass would likely prefer that McFadden start and get the bulk of the carries.
Fantasy owners would prefer it, too; we dread the running back by committee. In nine of 16 games in 2008, the Raiders doled out eight or more carries to two (or more) different backs, and the team had only three 100-yard rushing games from a back. That's not a winning formula for our purposes.
Fitting in: The rookies Heyward-Bey and Murphy are the most prominent from a fantasy perspective, as they'll be given long looks on a team that is precariously thin at wide receiver. Both Ronald Curry and Ashley Lelie were let go during the offseason, leaving the team with little veteran talent behind Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens, who were largely untested at the onset of the 2008 season. Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick overall in the draft, has almost a straight path to a starting role. Although his fantasy potential will be limited by Russell's continued learning curve, he's a deep threat who might surprise you with a touchdown or seven. Keep an eye on how quickly he adapts to the system.
Speaking of Russell's learning curve, the Raiders brought in some much-needed competition in the name of Jeff Garcia, one of the most accurate veteran passers in the game. As with the McFadden situation, Cable and crew would much prefer to keep Russell under center, but in the event the third-year quarterback fails to show necessary improvement, Garcia is there to press him for the job.
On the line: The addition of tackle Khalif Barnes from the Jaguars addresses some of the Raiders' issues in 2008, especially their lack of pass protection. Oakland surrendered 39 sacks, ninth-most in the NFL, and its tackles were primarily responsible for the carnage, and absorbed many costly penalties. Barnes should slide in at one of the two tackle spots with Mario Henderson handling the other, and combined with the improving Robert Gallery at left guard to help protect Russell's blind side, the quarterback should have a little more time to throw.
From a run-blocking perspective, Oakland's O-line hasn't been especially problematic, helping the team to a No. 10 ranking by averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Much of that can be attributed to the team's zone-blocking system rather than to the raw talent on the offensive front, but one thing that should help the Raiders' backs go a long way is the offseason addition of fullback Lorenzo Neal. A successful blocker in San Diego and Baltimore, Neal should pay immediate dividends for the McFadden-Fargas-Bush trio, assuming one steps up to claim the starting gig.
The bottom line
Again, the Raiders are very much a work in progress, and the team's fortunes will rely largely on how quickly Russell, McFadden and Heyward-Bey develop. Asking even one, let alone two, of them to break out is a tall order, and about the only combination that would vault this team beyond league-average status for fantasy would be Russell's stepping up his game considerably and McFadden's having the kind of breakout campaign people were expecting from him a year ago. As weak as this team was, though, it's hard to imagine that happening.
Asomugha should help keep the pass defense competitive, but beyond him there's little to like on the defensive roster. Opponents tended to avoid throwing in his direction; he had one of the lowest target percentages of any cornerback in league history. Oakland's run defense continued to struggle, and the team's No. 1 ranking defending the pass was mostly a product of opponents' building big leads and running out the clock. It's a recipe likely to continue this year, especially in light of little roster turnover.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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