By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 at 10:01 am in Oakland Raiders.
Fourth in a series of posts analyzing Raiders position groups with players reporting to training camp in five days:
Projected starters: Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins. Backups: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Javon Walker, Todd Watkins, Jonathan Holland, Arman Shields, Samie Parker, Nick Miller, Shawn Bayes, Will Franklin.
There will be improved numbers from one of the least productive units in NFL history. The season-ending starters, Higgins and Schilens, caught 37 passes for 592 yards and six touchdowns. Combined. They finished strong enough to get the stamp approval from none other than Al Davis, who openly wished both would have gotten more playing time sooner. Heyward-Bey had a good first practice, a poor second one then had hamstring issues throughout the rest of the mandatory minicamp and OTAs. Murphy drew praise from Cable and could provide instant results. Walker is a wild card, having undergone knee surgery but vowing to return to health and regain the form that made him a dangerous receiver. The Raiders are paying him over the next two years after a renegotiated contract. Watkins made the 2008 roster on the strength of a strong training camp and will need to duplicate that effort to stick again. If Shields can’t put practices together, hard to see him surviving unless they want to put him on the practice squad. Bayes and Miller are smallish receivers/return specialists with “Raider speed.” Parker and Franklin have some NFL experience but would be longshots to stick.
The key battle: Heyward-Bey vs. Murphy.
Heyward-Bey has some catching up to do because of his hamstring problem, with Murphy having some impressive practices and having the look of an instant contributor.
What I think: The Raiders have drawn criticism over the past two years for passing on Michael Crabtree in the 2009 draft and DeSean Jackson in 2008. Their answers to those decisions lie in the performance of Schilens and Higgins, players of similar styles who finished the season strong enough to give hope that they landed comparable talents with later draft picks. Don’t be surprised if Heyward-Bey, particularly early on, ends up as more of a clear-out receiver who gets the occasional over-the-top shot from Russell, with Murphy getting more receptions. Here’s a scary thought _ the steady veteran presence in terms of leadership is Walker.
What could go wrong: Schilens can’t stay healthy, Higgins can’t produce as a lead receiver, Heyward-Bey can’t hold on to the ball and the dark cloud that hovers over Walker remains in place.