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Camp analysis: Quarterbacks

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First in a series of posts analyzing Raiders position groups with players scheduled to report to Napa in eight days:

Starter: JaMarcus Russell. Backups: Jeff Garcia, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Andrew Walter, Danny Southwick.

The background noise regarding Garcia’s desire to be a starter is just that _ background noise. Barring injury, it would take a faceplant of major proportions for Russell to lose the job in Napa.

The key battle: With Nos. 1 and 2 secure, the question is whether Bruce Gradkowski can hold off Charlie Frye with limited reps. Gradkowski has a head start in the offense and a working relationship with quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett. Frye has the better arm and is a superior athlete. Southwick may not get enough work for a shot-in-the-dark chance to be No. 3.

What I think: Russell was mostly unimpressive during minicamps and OTAs, at least those attended by the media. One practice was so bad a veteran out-of-town NFL writer was horrified, calling it the worst practice he’d ever seen by a quarterback taken No. 1 overall in the draft.

The Raiders tweaked the offense with the addition of Ted Tollner and are still breaking in a youthful group of receivers. Russell’s play in the offseason is more than offset by his showing in the final seven games of the regular season, where he avoided interceptions, was a capable game manager and showed more progress than given credit for in the national media.

Considering he went through three play-callers and the whole Lane Kiffin upheaval, it wasn’t bad _ particularly in the last two games of the season when Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens emerged as legitimate targets to go along with tight end Zach Miller.

That said, the next step is a big one. Russell’s best games have come when the Raiders were run-heavy. Teams will load up to stop Oakland’s run and some will succeed. Russell will have to prove he can carry the offense when that happens. The passing game needs to make big strides in Napa.

What could go wrong: There has been mixed signals about Russell’s work ethic. One day he announces a secret get-together for wideouts, the next day he misses practice, then he reportedly makes good on the camp.

Coach Tom Cable remains optimistic and positive, but cautiously so. He says Russell is learning how to be an NFL quarterback, but always emphasizes Russell could work harder and acknowledging Garcia’s presence is intended to help that process along.

If it’s all a carrot-and-stick ploy by the head coach, simply never allowing a kid quarterback to be satisfied, then fine. If it’s because of a legitimate concern that the future of the franchise still has a ways to go in terms of realizing what it takes to be an NFL quarterback, then it’s a problem.

The debate on whether Russell is making strides in becoming a worker bee or if he still hasn’t grasped the magnitude of his challenge will play itself out on the practice fields behind the Napa Marriott.

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Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer