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Training Camp. The time year when players have the chance to showcase their off-season hard work, coaches get the chance to put their visions into motion, and speculation begins flying around at an unprecedented rate. Some teams choose to stay the course from the previous season hoping to build on what they have accomplished while other teams turn to change and a fresh start to be their saving grace. Regardless of the route each team chooses to take, the target destination of Super Bowl XLVII remains the same.
The Raiders are no doubt introducing change across the board this season as they usher in the “New Era” of Raiders football under General Manager Reggie McKenzie. As part of this new era, much has been made of the obvious changes in philosophy on the field as the Raiders look to get away from their strict man to man base 4-3 defense of the past and look to be spontaneous and more “multiple” on defense in 2012. The change doesn’t stop there though as the Raiders also look to switch things up on the offensive side of the ball bringing back former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his strong belief in the Zone Blocking scheme and West Coast Offense.
While many are excited to see the end result of all the changes, few people actually understand the difficulty in changing so much in such a short amount of time. To the fans, what seems like an eternity of waiting for the next NFL season to arrive, is all but a blur to the coaches and players trying to figure out how they will ever cover everything in the little time they have together before the season starts. 10 days of organized team activities, 26 training camp practices, and 4 preseason games. Under the new CBA, that is all the time an NFL team has to implement their strategy and prepare for the upcoming NFL season.
In what seems like an impossible task to change almost every part of a teams philosophy in one off-season, the Raiders actually have a big asset working in their favor. That asset happens to come in the form of player versatility. The Raiders are unmatched when it comes to the ability of their players to play multiple roles on the field. It’s a weapon that has arguably been under utilized by previous coaching staffs, and its a weapon that coach Dennis Allen and the rest of his staff must take full advantage of if they plan to maximize their level of success while implementing their new schemes.
While the Raiders have had a good amount of versatility on their defense in recent years, their scheme has restricted how far it could take them. This year the restraints are gone and the versatility of these players will be very important to the multiple looks the Raiders want to use this season.
Tyvon Branch will play a key role in how successful the Raiders defense will be in 2012, and the amount of things this guy can do on the football field are almost endless. Branch came out of the University of Connecticut where he focused mostly on playing corner back and returning kicks. After joining the Raiders he began his transition from corner back to strong safety, a transition not many guys can claim to have effectively made. Tyvon was not only effective in his new role, but he is now a top five player in the league at that position. With the Raiders short on corner back depth, Branch was also asked to fill in there at times last season. Being able to make that switch mid game is impressive on many levels but his ability doesn’t stop there. Branch also has the range and instincts to play the free safety position, meaning he can be effective at any one of the 4 main defensive back positions. Having a player with that ability adds a tremendous amount flexibility to a defensive game plan, and the fact that he has 4.3 speed means he is never far from the ball regardless of where he begins the play.
Philip Wheeler played his college ball at Georgia Tech where he thrived as an inside linebacker in an aggressive blitzing defense. As a matter of fact, Wheeler was considered by many as one of the nation’s best-blitzing linebackers. That is a skill Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver plan to take full advantage of as the transition to a more aggressive defense has been no secret to this point. Wheeler also possesses rare coverage abilities in the open field, not something a lot of linebackers can say. Having a linebacker who can both attack and cover is a tremendous asset.
Rolando McClain brings his versatility to the table in a different form. McClain was the center piece in Nick Saban’s famous 3-4 defense at Alabama. He excelled there and it’s a role that McClain began to really become comfortable in. However, when he was picked by the Raiders in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, they felt he had what it took to make a the transition to a 4-3 middle linebacker. While he has not had instant success there, he has improved as a 2-gap linebacker and seems to be looking a lot better in training camp this year. That is very important as the Raiders want to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this season. They will need their leader in the middle to be able to call the plays in the huddle and play as both a one and two gap linebacker depending on the formation.
Lamarr Houston played defensive tackle at the University of Texas, but was brought to Oakland to fill a hole at defensive end. Houston is a physical specimen who has proven he can play either position in the NFL with his rare combination of quickness and power. Maybe one of the most intriguing things about him though is where he fits into the 3-4 packages. He certainly has the power to hold his own as a 3-4 end, and does a great job at getting leverage on offensive lineman to be able to drive them back. It has also been noticed that Houston is looking like he’s in good shape this season and might trimmed down some weight to be closer to 280-290 instead of 300-310. Could we see him play some elephant backer (a combination 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB) this season?
Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant have also both played inside and outside on the defensive line in the 4-3, and Seymour has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in New England where he won two super bowls. Those two being able to move around on the defensive line will help out tremendously as well.
Of course there are others players on the defense capable of doing multiple things, but i believe the six guys listed above bring a lot of value to what Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver are trying to accomplish on defense. Switching gears to the other side of the ball, the offense is not short on dynamic players either and most seem very excited about the system Greg Knapp is using this season.
Darren McFadden is a one of a kind running back. He has the speed and agility to score every time he touches the ball, but unlike most backs with those attributes, he can also use his power to effectively run between the tackles as well. He is not limited to his running ability though. McFadden has shown many times that he can line up in the slot, run routes, and catch like a wide receiver too. There is not another running back in the NFL that can do all of those things at a high level, and he shares a back field with none other than Marcel Reece. A converted wide receiver from the University of Washington, Reece has played wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and has even carried the ball a few times. He is an X-Factor for the offense, and is incredibly hard to game plan for because he can do so many things from the fullback position. How many times does a defense have to game plan for the fullback? McFadden and Reece are without a doubt the most dynamic backfield duo in the NFL and it’s not even close.
The offensive line is not normally thought about as being versatile, but in the Raiders case they are. Jared Veldheer, a 6’8″ left tackle also spent time playing center his rookie season. Stefan Wisneiwski played center at Penn State, but spent almost his entire rookie season at left guard and played very well there for the Raiders last season. He has now moved back to center. Cooper Carlisle has spent the majority of his career at right guard, but when the team brought Mike Brisel aboard via free agency Carlisle was moved to left guard where he will play this season. Khalif Barnes has started at left tackle and right tackle at certain points in his NFL career. He was also used a lot as an extra lineman in jumbo packages that Hue Jackson liked to use, one of which had Barnes running a route into the end zone where he caught a touchdown pass. Aside from all of that though, they are also making the switch from the power blocking scheme to the zone blocking scheme while returning all starters from last season with the exception of one. In most cases, there are major personnel changes a long the offensive line when you make that kind of switch. At face value it might not seem like a tall task, but any lineman who has played in both will tell you it’s a very tough thing to grasp.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is really starting to develop into a solid wide receiver, who possesses great speed and a big frame capable of breaking tackles. He is getting much better as route running which creates separation from the defensive back and timing with the quarterback. He also excels at running blocking as well though which does not get near enough credit. It is the job of the offensive line to get the running back to the second level, but it is often times a block by a wide receiver that springs the running back for a long gain or a touchdown. DHB’s hard work has made him into a dynamic player in the Raiders offense, and he should only continue to get better.
If the Raiders are able to successfully change so many parts in one season, the one thing that will allow them to do it is the flexibility that have with their roster. As you can see there is not another team in the league that matches the Raiders versatility in all facets of the game, and it will be up to the coaches to use that to their advantage to gain a competitive edge.
Travis Goethel #50
College: Arizona St.
Weight: 240 lbs
Arm Length: 32.0″
Hand Size 9.6″
40 Yard Dash: 4.81
3 Cone Drill: 6.93
20 Yard Shuttle: 4.54
Bench Press: 21 reps
Vertical Jump: 35″
Broad Jump: 111″
Travis Goethel was selected in the 6th round in the 2010 draft. He was initially thought to be one of those late round steals after making some significant noise in training camp, but a lower back injury limited him severely his first season with the Raiders. He saw action in just 8 games his rookie season, most of which was on special teams. After showing signs of promise his rookie year before the injury, many were excited to see what Goethel had to offer in his second season with a clean bill of health. He burst onto the scene again in 2011, drawing rave reviews in training camp from the coaches, and was in line to start at weak side linebacker. Fans again began to hope Goethel would emerge into a late round steal for the Raiders only to have history repeat itself in the form of a torn ACL that caused Goethel to miss the entire 2011 season.
Travis Goethel now finds himself losing traction. Another major injury, and it will more than likely end his stint in Oakland. However, Goethel still has enough talent to make a real impact on the 2012 defense. He is a very versatile player, that can fill any one of the linebacker spots in a 4-3 and could probably play inside in the 3-4. With the legal troubles of Rolando McClain and the history of good training camps from Goethel, don’t sleep on the possibility of him still earning a starting spot. Of course, before Goethel can begin thinking about earning a starting spot, he will have to defeat his biggest enemy which is the injury bug.
It is also worth mentioning that Goethel was a favorite of the old coaching staff in Oakland. With the new regime taking over, his previous training camp performances are irrelevant and he no longer has ties to anyone. If he has another strong camp and impresses coaches again this year, it’s a good indication that Travis Goethel has some real talent on the football field.
Will Goethel finally hold up long enough to establish himself or will he become the “Chaz Schilens” of the Raiders defense?
Rolando McClain #55
Weight: 254 lbs
Arm Length: 33″
Hand Size: 9 3/8″
40 Yard Dash: 4.69
3 Cone Drill: N/A
20 Yard Shuttle: N/A
Bench Press: 24 reps
Vertical Jump: 35″
Broad Jump: N/A
In the last decade there have been a lot of Raiders first round picks that were scrutinized far before they ever put on a uniform. A lot of the scrutiny was justified, but should not always be directed at the player. After all, the players can’t control where they are selected. Rolando McClain “broke the mold” if you will, when it comes to first round picks by the Raiders though. He was thought of by many to finally be one of those “sure thing” draft picks. Well the start of McClain’s career in the NFL has been anything but “sure”. McClain struggled to make the transition from a one gap linebacker in Nick Saban’s 34 defense at Alabama to a two gap linebacker in the 43 defense the Raiders ran in his first season. Those struggles are understood on some levels. Making the transition to the NFL is tough enough without having to learn a completely new scheme and be counted on as a day 1 starter your rookie season. However, this is the big league’s now and sympathy is hard to come by.
In year two, it was a fresh start for McClain. After getting a year under his belt and time to adjust to all the changes it was time for McClain to settle in and begin his dominance, right? Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. While McClain showed his ability at times during the season, he was inconsistent at best and did not progress much from year one. He struggled mightily in pass coverage, got caught out of position far too often and at times did not shed blocks in the run game as you would expect out of your “star” linebacker.
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that no excuses should be made for McClain. He is getting paid big money and he knows what is expected of him. However, you do have to keep in mind a couple of things. First, McClain did play the majority of the season on a bum ankle. How bad it really was is tough to know, but it was obvious at times that it was bothering him. Some guys will get the benefit of the doubt, and will be seen as a “team” player for playing hurt, but patience is wearing thin for the guy who was supposed to help restore a run defense in Oakland. Second, the Raiders defensive scheme was one that had many people scratching their heads throughout the season. It certainly did not put players in the best position to be successful the majority of the time.
To steal a line from head coach Dennis Allen, “At the end of the day…” the players have to go out and perform and McClain did not perform up to standards. To make matters worse, McClain is now facing jail time for assault charges stemming from a fight he was involved in back in Alabama. Luckily for McClain, there is a new regime running the show, and they are willing to forget the past and give everyone a fresh start. An opportunity McClain better take full advantage from.
Despite the negatives that have shown through in the first two years of McClain’s career, there is still no doubting the talent he possesses. It’s up to him to put in the work so that the talent shows up on Sundays. He has some things working in his favor this season though. Dennis Allen has made it clear that he wants to mix in some 34 looks this season. That should put McClain in more of a comfort zone as a one gap linebacker. He will also probably be asked to cover down field less and focus more on short zone’s and run defense. He also excels at blitzing, which is something the Raiders plan to do a lot this year. McClain belongs in an attack style defense where he can trust his first instinct and just go out and play. His third season should tell the Raiders everything they need to know about their young linebacker.
Was he a product of a great system at Alabama or is he primed to breakout and become one of the future stars at inside linebacker?
The Oakland Raiders may not do much shuffling on the offensive side of the ball, but the 29th ranked defense will be altered.
Stanford Routt has already been released and Reggie McKenzie promises even more change. Of the 11 positions on defense, only two have unquestioned starters.
Had the Raiders been healthy, the starters at the end of the season would have been nearly identical to the starters in Week 1. The lone exception would be Aaron Curry starting over Quentin Groves.
Since the Raiders will use both three-man and four-man fronts, we’ll have to predict the starters for both schemes.
RDE Matt Shaughnessy (4-3 only)
Last season, Shaughnessy was among the favorites during training camp to have a breakout, but hurt his shoulder and missed 13 games. He’ll return in 2012 and hope to revive the buzz he generated last offseason. Shaughnessy managed to record just one sack in three games in 2011 and will be ready to add to that total.
The introduction of the 3-4 will be very interesting for Shaughnessy and his only scheme fit appears to be as an end in the 4-3.
LDE Lamarr Houston
Houston registered one sack in 13 games after registering five in his rookie campaign in 2010. He’s stout against the run, but he can be neutralized when forced to rush the passer.
Houston’s best opportunity to rush the passer comes from the defensive tackle position in the 4-3, but Richard Seymour will remain with the Raiders for at least another season.
Houston is scheme diverse and should be able to translate into a nice 3-4 defensive end. Instead of coming off the field on passing downs like he has the past two seasons, Houston will stay on field.
DT Tommy Kelly
Kelly has been rumored to be on the chopping block, but he’s a decent bet to return and should restructure the mega deal he signed in 2008. Kelly quietly put up a career year in 2011 with 7.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 5 passes defended and 1 interception.
Houston gets the starting nod over Kelly at 3-4 end, but Kelly could be just as effective playing the 5-technique. The question with Kelly is if he is the right guy to defend the run or if he would be better suited for the 3-technique a position locked down by Richard Seymour.
DT/RDE Richard Seymour
McKenzie made a commitment to Seymour when the deadline came and went that made half of Seymour’s $15 million base salary in 2012 guaranteed. That means McKenzie will need to work out an extension with Seymour that reduces his cap number.
Seymour has experience running the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and would start in both fronts. He’d continue to have good success as a 4-3 defensive tackle from the 3-technique and would start at LDE as a 5-technique defensive end. He’s one of the few locks on the defense.
OLB Manny Lawson
Aaron Curry played well after coming over from Seattle, but there was a reason he was traded and he’s due $5.7 million in 2012. It’s hard to imagine the Raiders wanting to pay Curry anything close to what his contract has paid him to this point and that will force the Raiders to go in a different direction.
The Raiders will look for a more affordable option in free agency and hopefully they will find an OLB who is equally effective in the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. There aren’t many OLB options in free agency so this will be one of the more interesting positions to watch.
Lawson has experience in both schemes and with defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
Lawson isn’t great at rushing the passer, but uses his natural athleticism. He’s underrated in coverage and a good defender against the run. He’s a well-rounded linebacker that is being undervalued by the rest of the league.
MLB/ILB Rolando McClain
It’s a make or break year for McClain. Playing more of the 3-4 defense will take some of the pressure off McClain and he should be able to play faster. However, effort has also been an issue with McClain and that’s something Dennis Allen and his staff needs to address right away.
Despite lackluster play to this point in his career the Raiders will give McClain his chance at redemption. It’s up to McClain to take advantage of his second chance and shut-up his critics.
ILB Joe Mays
The Raiders don’t have a lot of cap space and will find it difficult to add a ILB in free agency. Travis Goethel is a huge unknown, but he’d be a consideration for this position as well.
Dennis Allen was calling in the plays to Mays in Denver and the familiarity will help the Raiders defense get up to speed in Allen’s defense. Mays shouldn’t break the bank, he’ll play in 3-4 alignments and provide competition for McClain as at MLB.
OLB Kamerion Wimbley
There has been a lot of talk about Wimbley and how he’ll be released if he doesn’t restructure his contract. The fact that this has all come out in the media suggests the Raiders are having issues negotiating with Wimbley’s agent.
Wimbley has a ton of leverage and the Raiders need to restore fiscal responsibility. The Raiders can release Wimbley and suggest it’s part of the regime change in Oakland, but the truth is they want Wimbley back.
Something will get done at the last minute that keeps Wimbley in Oakland.
CB Terrell Thomas
He’s coming off an injury, but was a solid cornerback for the Giants for the past few seasons. He’s more of a number two cornerback, but the Raiders can’t afford a top option.
When you think about which players can be signed to a reasonable contract and fit the new defensive scheme, Thomas comes to mind. He’s a poor man’s Cortland Finnegan.
FS Brandon Underwood
The Raiders picked up ex-Packer Underwood as one of McKenzie’s first signings. It would be easy to look at Underwood as a potential starter at cornerback considering he was signed shortly after the release of Stanford Routt, but that’s a mistake.
The Packers were trying to convert Underwood into a free safety, something the Raiders should try to continue. If Underwood can stay focused, he’s got enough talent to start. The Raiders need options in the secondary and with a limited budget the Raiders will be forced to find a starter or two with minimum salaries.
SS Tyvon Branch
The Raiders put the franchise tag on Branch and will continue to work on a long-term contract. Branch hasn’t been featured in the Raiders defensive scheme to this point, but that should be changing.
Branch is an extremely underrated player in the secondary and the fans will finally get a chance to see it in 2012.
CB Michael Huff
Huff has a huge cap number, but recently tweeted how excited he was about Dennis Allen’s defense. That would be an awkward conversation if McKenzie planned on releasing Huff.
Huff likely will or has restructured his contract to be more favorable for the Raiders, and the Raiders may have a hard time finding solid cornerbacks in free agency.
Safeties aren’t easy to find in free agency either, but McKenzie won’t be able to justify the cost on two safeties so Huff will shift to cornerback.