Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
The Raiders suffered an epic fall from grace in 2003, one that saw Oakland
go from defending AFC champion to tied with the Chargers, Cardinals and
Giants for the worst record in the NFL.
A lot of the chaos and confusion centered around former head coach Bill
Callahan, who feuded with players while consistently making changes to an
offense that had led the entire league in scoring in '02. Callahan, not
surprisingly, was let go in the offseason and replaced by Norv Turner, whose
only other head-coaching experience came during a seven-year stint with the
Callahan wasn't the only person to part ways with the Raiders. Longtime
senior assistant Bruce Allen left to join Tampa Bay, as did RB Charlie Garner and WR Tim Brown, who was released early in training camp when it
became clear he was no longer in Oakland's offensive plans.
Veterans Rod Woodson, Bill Romanowski and Barret Robbins were all released;
Trace Armstrong and Lincoln Kennedy retired. Meanwhile, Oakland signed free agents Ted Washington, Warren Sapp and Ray Buchanan, who were all brought
aboard to help first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan implement his 3-4
Quarterbacks: Rich Gannon dropped from league MVP to mere mortal status
last season, when he threw six TD passes and four interceptions before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury that forced him to the sideline for the final nine games. Though Gannon looks fully healed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, the Raiders weren't about to take any chances and signed free agent Kerry Collins to a three-year contract in the offseason. Since then, Oakland has had a mini-QB controversy brewing, though Turner and Collins both have repeatedly said the starting job is Gannon's. Third-stringer Marques Tuiasosopo, who also suffered a season-ending injury last year, will be the No. 3. Grade: B-plus.
Running backs: Tyrone Wheatley nearly disappeared from the radar the last
three seasons but has emerged as Oakland's go-to back under Turner.
Wheatley, who had his only 1,000-yard season in the NFL in 2000, gives
Turner the power back he wants. Though he won't win many sprints, Wheatley
is ideal for what the Raiders are trying to do and will give Oakland a
physical presence in the backfield that was missing when Garner was the lead
back. With Garner in Tampa Bay, second-year player Justin Fargas becomes the
quickest runner in the Raiders' backfield and will offer a nice complement
to Wheatley's power running. Amos Zereoue was signed in
the offseason to add depth. Short-yardage specialist Zack Crockett, who has
15 rushing touchdowns in the last two seasons, will start at fullback, while
Chris Hetherington and converted RB J.R. Redmond will back him up. Grade: B.
Receivers: The somewhat surprising decision to release Brown shocked some
veteran observers but not those close to the Raiders. Brown's production had
fallen off dramatically in recent years, and Oakland has stocked its shelves
with young, speedy replacements. Injury-prone Jerry Porter heads the list
and has Pro Bowl potential, though he has yet to prove he can be a
consistent, every-down threat. Jerry Rice turns 42 in October but is still
productive and should benefit from the added influx of youth around him.
Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel progressed well enough during the Raiders'
offseason workouts and the start of training camp that the team saw fit to
cut ties with Brown after a 16-year relationship. Oakland also added rookies
Carlos Francis and Johnnie Morant in the draft, but none of the receivers
outside of Porter and Rice has much experience. The Raiders also have a
logjam at tight end with veteran Roland Williams, youngsters Teyo Johnson
and Doug Jolley and rookie Courtney Anderson. Because Turner favors the run,
Williams becomes an immediate starter because he is the only legitimate
blocker of the bunch. Grade: B-minus.
Offensive linemen: In '03, the Raiders went through offensive linemen like a
flu clinic goes through tissues. Only one starter (OLT Barry Sims) played in
all 16 games, and the team had three different starting centers. Injuries
ravaged Oakland's front five and also exposed the team's serious lack of
depth on the line. Sims and OLG Frank Middleton are the lone remaining
mainstays from last year, though Sims is eventually expected to lose his
starting job to first-round draft pick Robert Gallery. At presstime, Sims
continued to hold on to the starting OLT spot, with Gallery possibly being
considered for one of the starting OG jobs. Another rookie, C Jake Grove, is
also pushing for a starting job now that Robbins is no longer part of the
picture. Newly acquired ORG Ron Stone missed more than two weeks of training
camp with a hamstring injury but is expected to be in the starting lineup on
opening day. ORT Langston Walker has the biggest shoes to fill as the
replacement for Kennedy, a three-time Pro Bowler and respected leader. Brad
Badger, Mo Collins and Adam Treu will provide the team with depth up front.
Defensive linemen: The additions of Washington and Sapp should significantly
improve Oakland's run defense, which ranked a league-worst 32nd overall last
season. The duo will also make it easier for Ryan to implement his 3-4
defense and will lend immediate credibility and leadership to a defense that
was lacking in both. DE Tyler Brayton should benefit from the added beef in
the middle, though he is still a work in progress, while John Parrella and
Bobby Hamilton will help a pass rush that was virtually non-existent in '03.
Linebackers: The Raiders essentially cleaned house with their linebackers,
saving only two players -- Napoleon Harris and Travian Smith -- who had any
extensive playing time. Harris injured his knee early in training camp but
is expected to be back in time for the opener. He'll team with veteran Danny
Clark to form the inside tandem while Smith, who ended '03 on injured
reserve, and DeLawrence Grant, who also injured his knee in camp, will help
the pass rush from the outside. Both Smith and Grant can also shift down and
play end in the 4-3, which is what the Raiders will do from time to time.
Defensive backs: This could be a pretty decent unit, which would be a big
step up from the squad that took the field a year ago. Unhappy over being
slapped with the franchise-player label, Charles Woodson skipped all of the
team's offseason workouts and minicamps in his effort to become the
highest-paid corner in the league. Rod Woodson's release left a void at
safety, but the team signed the former Falcon Buchanan to help ease the
pain. Buchanan has already made a strong impact on CB Phillip Buchanon,
everyone's favorite whipping boy last year. Buchanon has been Oakland's most
consistent defender in training camp and appears more disciplined in
coverage than he was the last two years. Derrick Gibson is still a question
mark at strong safety, though the Raiders might be tempted to move rookie
Stuart Schweigert down in the box if Gibson continues to struggle. Grade:
Special teams: Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler are two of the best
kickers in the league and will give new special-teams coach Joe Avezzano a
leg up on the competition. Janikowski has great leg strength and is coming
off his best season as a pro. Lechler currently holds the NFL record for
career punting average, and how he got left off the Pro Bowl roster last
year is anybody's guess. With Buchanon returning punts to go with WRs
Gabriel and Francis returning kickoffs, the Raiders are stacked. Oakland's
coverage teams were a problem last year, an issue that needs to be
corrected. Grade: A-minus.
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