Commentary

Raiders ready to make move up

Originally Published: August 23, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

NAPA, Calif. -- It's probably fitting that the Oakland Raiders have a restaurant in their training camp hotel called "Characters." Raiders history has been filled with characters, from Lyle Alzado to John Matuszak to Otis Sistrunk to Lester Hayes. The list goes on and on.

And so do the controversies, the most recent being reports of head coach Tom Cable's alleged assault of defensive assistant Randy Hanson.

The NFL is investigating, but the players have moved on.

"We knock each other out once a night," Raiders guard Robert Gallery said jokingly. Something happened, but the Raiders aren't dwelling on it. Owner Al Davis watches practice from a golf cart. Players go about their business. It's just another day for the Raiders.

Oakland might be the second-best team in the AFC West. If it can put aside the controversies and focus on football, it might start to climb up the standings.

Here are the five things I learned during my recent trip to Raiders camp:

[+] EnlargeChaz Schilens
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireReceiver Chaz Schilens was the standout at Raiders camp until he suffered a foot injury that could sideline him six weeks.
1. The worst story from camp is the injury to receiver Chaz Schilens. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was the clear star of camp. An unheralded seventh-round pick from 2008, Schilens earned the starting split end job with hard work and great skills. He caught only 15 passes last season, but during the offseason program and camp, Schilens was emerging as JaMarcus Russell's go-to wide receiver.

Schilens worked hard on getting off the line of scrimmage against press coverage and was one of the receivers who had separation from cornerbacks in coverage. On Tuesday morning, the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot snapped and he had surgery Wednesday. He'll probably miss around six weeks, setting back an already lagging passing offense. It hasn't helped that first-round choice Darrius Heyward-Bey continues to struggle catching the ball. The seventh pick in the draft drops a pass or two or three at each practice. Part of it might be that he is pressing. Part of it might be his style of catching. He's more of a body catcher than a hands catcher, a technique he must fix.

2. Don't count out Javon Walker as the answer to Oakland's receiving woes. Walker is trying to come back from chronic knee problems and is almost ready to come off the physically unable to perform list. Watching him work out alone with a trainer for more than an hour each day was one of the more interesting sights of my training camp tour. Walker looks great. He's running fast and catching the ball well.

A year ago, Walker's career appeared to be heading to an early conclusion because of his bad right knee. The pain was so bad that Walker considered retirement. He said he underwent a revolutionary knee procedure that he's going to unveil to the world once he's back. Walker won't say if he had the operation overseas or in the United States, but he suggests it's going to help a lot of players with knee problems.

Cable plans to activate Walker off the PUP list soon and may play him in the third week of the season. Cable thinks he can get back to the level of a No. 1 receiver again. The timing couldn't be any better with Schilens out.

3. The key to the season could come down to the Raiders' ability to stop the run. Oakland ranked 31st against the rush last season (159.7 yards a game) but didn't change much at defensive tackle -- Tommy Kelly and Gerard Warren are the starters there. Terdell Sands, a 335-pound run-stopper, will come off the bench. There are rumblings of change at middle linebacker, but Cable is still sorting that out.

The Raiders hired John Marshall as a defensive coordinator to fix the defense. He brought along his close friend, Dwaine Board, to work with the linemen. Major changes have occurred at end, with Trevor Scott and Greg Ellis starting. Ellis is playing left end, replacing Derrick Burgess, who was traded to New England. Ellis can still rush the passer, but he might wear down if he's on the field for too many running downs. Because the Raiders have the ability to play a lot of man-to-man defense with their talented group of cornerbacks, Marshall may unleash a few extra run blitzes to help the process.

JaMarcus Russell
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireJaMarcus Russell completed only 53.8 percent of his passes last season, a mark that must improve.
4. JaMarcus Russell has improved, but he's under a lot of pressure. Don't worry about a quarterback controversy. Davis wants Russell to be successful, so he will be given every chance to go deep into the season and grow. Jeff Garcia, back on the practice field after missing two weeks with a calf injury, keeps pushing for the chance to be a starter and plans to be available if Russell slips.

To augment Russell's strong right arm, Raiders receivers are lengthening their routes. This may only be Russell's second year as a starter, but he must make a dramatic jump in his completion percentage (53.8 in 2008). He is doing a better job with shorter passes.

5. Running back Darren McFadden is ready for a breakout season. But it would be nice if he could start. The expectation is the Raiders will open the game with Justin Fargas as starter and then bring in McFadden. Fargas is a good back, but McFadden has a chance to be great. He shows it every day on the practice field.

McFadden explodes through the hole. His best runs are to the outside, which will force defenses to set up strategies to funnel him more toward the middle of the field. The Raiders also put him in the slot and send him out on pass routes.

McFadden had only 113 carries as a rookie, so he must at least double that this season to get over the 1,000-yard mark. There is no doubt the Raiders will try to run the ball a lot this year. The question is how Cable will balance the carries and how long it will take for McFadden to be the first back to get the carries.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer