By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Thursday, May 7th, 2009 at 11:37 am in Oakland Raiders.
Looking forward to actually seeing some players on the field starting Friday, although it’s wise not to attach too much significance to non-contact drills in a contact sport.
So while we won’t get to watch how Darrius Heyward-Bey goes after a high pass with Mike Mitchell waiting to blow him up, the following will be watched with interest:
– How smooth and natural does Heyward-Bey look catching the ball, and will his speed be as breathtaking as advertised? If he has issues with his hands, it could be simply nerves or unfamiliarity with the system, but it would at least be of minor concern.
– How well does Mitchell cover receivers in seven-on-seven sessions when he can’t use the contact which is such a big part of his game? He is supposed to be good enough to even cover a wide receiver in a pinch.
But there’s a big difference between what Mitchell saw in college and what he’ll see this weekend. I remember hearing the same thing about Tyvon Branch last year, and like most rookies, he struggled keeping up in coverage.
– Will Russell be in better shape? Lane Kiffin used to say Russell was always going to be a 270-pounder and there was nothing that could be done to change that. It was his body and his natural weight.
But truth be told, Russell, as least with the Raiders, has not been a well-cut athlete and his body-type looks more like some of the offensive linemen than a quarterback. Athletes “change their body” through nutrition and training all the time.
Russell tends to wear a baggy practice jersey and his shape may not be evident. It’s also worth noting it’s only May and he’s got plenty of time. Or maybe Kiffin is simply right. Russell will look like Russell.
– What happens when Russell overthrows Heyward-Bey? Does the rookie simply accelerate and run under it?
– Does either Mario Henderson or Khalif Barnes take any snaps on the right side, or will both be exclusively left tackles for the five sessions? Ideally, Henderson would play as he did over the last there games of the season and start and Barnes would be rejuvenated with the Raiders. Both would start, but which one is on the left?
– How does Garcia look throwing the medium- and deep-range passes Tom Cable wants as a part of the offense?
– Who appears to be running the Raiders offense? When Cable is going from unit to unit, I assume it will be passing game coordinator Ted Tollner, with Paul Hackett concentrating on fundamentals with Russell and Co. Plays are done off a practice call sheet, but there usually is a voice of authority.
– Is Andrew Walter the fourth quarterback behind Russell, Garcia and Bruce Gradkowski?
– Are the Raiders going to mix in some 3-4 defense, with players such as Slade Norris and Stryker Sulak, who will be stood up as outside linebackers but who rushed the passer in college?
(To be fair, Rob Ryan did some 4-3 in minicamps and training camp, but we didn’t see much of it in the regular season _ mostly because of personnel. The current personnel could change that).
– Will Michael Huff play like someone who is competing for his professional life, and will John Marshall’s system afford him comfortable enough to break on the ball and risk error, while a the same time making some plays?
Huff has been a player who has taken very few chances and the result is he’s often been invisible.
– Is Javon Walker healthy and does he look like he wants to prove he’s not washed up? He’s guaranteed $4.6 million over the next two years whether he does or not.
– Will there be music during warmups?
Music boomed through loudspeakers during warmups since Kiffin arrived, and the practice was continued when Cable took over. The playlists ranged from rap to rock and occasionally country. Now that Cable has the team from the start, does he send a subtle message that it’s his team now?
Cable, by the way, said he was partial to Guns N’ Roses and classic rock.
– Will there be a new fullback on the roster. Rumors of Lorenzo Neal’s arrival have yet to be confirmed. In that regard, we’ll see if Oren O’Neal is ready to take the field or if he’s off to the side working with athletic trainers.
– Will Trevor Scott look any bigger, but still be just as quick? Scott played in the 240s last season, regardless of what the roster said. The first time I saw him out of uniform, I thought he was an outside linebacker or safety and was instantly skeptical.
Wrong, of course. Looked like a great sixth-round pick.
Minicamp will be of little use in determining the following:
– Will the Raiders be any better at stopping the run?
They’ll be working on fitting gaps and being fundamentally sound, but with the rules stating you don’t want players blocked to the ground or any true hitting, you simply can’t tell if they’re getting anywhere. Even training camp can be deceiving because the contact is not finished.
– Will the pass protection be improved?
– Offensive linemen are at a distinct disadvantage when they can’t fire off and take the offensive to change up their tactics. Quicker players such as Derrick Burgess are unblockable during non-contact drills because they’re too quick and linemen can’t wear them down.
– The depth chart. There will be some clues, maybe. But if, say, Matt Shaughnessy is suddenly thrown in with the ones, it may simply be to see how he reacts. Or it could be to motivate someone else on the line who needs it.
I remember Chris Morris working as a first-team center for a time last year. Everyone got a notebook lead or a blog out of it. By the next day, Morris was back with the threes.