Junking the backup plan

Got a call Saturday from a Raiders official who took exception to a reference to an interview conducted with Fred Biletnikoff on a Sacramento radio station.

In making a case for taking a flyer on free agent linebacker Odell Thurman, I included Biletnikoff’s contention that the Raiders had too many players of backup quality who were starting.

The Raiders’ position is that Biletnikoff wasn’t necessarily referring to the Raiders, but to the entire NFL, and that the interview if heard in its entirety was extremely positive in nature with regard to the future of the franchise.

I didn’t quote Biletnikoff because I had the contents of the interview relayed to me via e-mail and posts on this board, so I’ll take the Raiders word for it.

But I will say this _ if Biletnikoff wasn’t talking specifically about the Raiders, he could have been have been (or should have been). And the biggest reason he has reason for optimism regarding the future of the franchise is that the Raiders have attempted to bring in more players of starter quality.

The 2007 team refuted the myth that the Raiders have this seemingly endless reservoir of talent, just waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting NFL once they get the proper direction from the coaching staff. Even coach Lane Kiffin said picking a roster wasn’t all that difficult because there were so many players who didn’t measure up, and that he hoped it would be a tougher process in future years.

To look at the roster position group by position group is a perfect illustration of what Biletnikoff was talking about (regarding the NFL, of course, not the Raiders).

Quarterbacks: Josh McCown was signed keep the seat warm for JaMarcus Russell. Daunte Culpepper is hoping to hook on somewhere as a backup. Andrew Walter couldn’t separate himself from Aaron Brooks.

Running backs: LaMont Jordan was an excellent backup for Curtis Martin with the New York Jets. The Raiders made a calculated gamble in making him a starter. When Jordan is cut, perhaps this week, he probably won’t end up being a starter anywhere else. Justin Fargas had a terrific season once he moved in to the starting lineup, but his running style leaves him prone to injury and he has below avearge receiving skills. Hence the selection of Darren McFadden.

Fullbacks: It’s not really a fulltime position anymore, with fullbacks coming out for three wide receiver sets. Justin Griffith is a cut-blocker with receiving skills, and the Raiders hope Oren O’Neal can become a Lorenzo Neal-style power blocker.

Offensive line: Robert Gallery will never be the franchise left tackle, but he showed promise in his first year as a starting guard. Right guard Cooper Carlisle graded out as the Raiders best lineman last season. That’s two-fifths of a line. Jeremy Newberry made an admirable comeback but is now hoping to sign on as someone’s backup. Cornell Green’s picture may as well be next to the definition of “journeyman” in the dictionary _ the guy you want in case the starter goes down. Barry Sims was waived and at this point in his career is probably a reserve at best.

Kwame Harris struggled in San Francisco, but Tom Cable is convinced he could be the ideal left tackle. There are numerous skeptics, but then again who would have thought Cable could do what he did with the Raiders line last year.

At center, Chris Morris will compete with veteran John Wade and Jake Grove (if healthy) to replace Newberry. The hope is Mario Henderson can show enough to win the job at right tackle after a season of watching from the sidelines as a third-round draft pick.

Wide receivers: Ronald Curry has led the Raiders in receiving the last two years, but is at his best as a third-receiver in the slot, which gives him fewer snaps and means less wear and tear. Some of Jerry Porter’s best work came as a third receiver with Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, although Jacksonville is convinced he can be a high-quality starter. Tim Dwight signed, showed flashes and also a propensity to be injured near the end of his career. Johnnie Lee Higgins was a non-factor.

Coming to the rescue? Javon Walker, if he can stay healthy, and Drew Carter, who Kiffin said is working well with Russell. Plus a pair of draft picks, Arman Shields and Chaz Schilens.

Tight ends: No worries here. Zach Miller could hold the position for the next decade.

Defensive line: Since defensive linemen are often rotated in and out, the concept of starters is overrated. Derrick Burgess is a proven pass rusher who, based declining production the past two years, probably could use fewer snaps. The Raiders have invested heavily in Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands, and how they fare will go a long way toward determining how the Raiders play defensively.

Linebackers: Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are among the best pass defending linebackers in the NFL, and if Kelly and Sands can do the dirty work inside, could have the opportunity to prove they can be stout against the run as well. As for the third spot, Sam Williams can’t stay healthy and Robert Thomas is a capable reserve because he can play all three spots.

Secondary: Stuart Schweigert is looking for work, probably as a backup, somewhere else. Hiram Eugene looked like a fringe player when given the starting position. Nnamdi Asomugha is a top-level corner, but Stanford Routt has yet to prove he can hold up every down.

Huge offseason upgrades came with the signing of Gibril Wilson at strong safety and DeAngelo Hall at cornerback. Wilson’s presence will allow Michael Huff the chance to justify is No. 7 overall selection in 2005 with playmaking skills instead of simply being a solid coverage player against tight ends. Hall pushes Routt to the nickel corner.

Even if Biletnikoff’s points were out of context, as I was politely told by a club official, it’s pretty clear the Raiders themselves realized they had a team with too many backups and took strides to make things better.


Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer