Last in a series analyzing Raiders position groups with players reporting for camp today:
Projected specialists: PK Sebastian Janikowski, P Shane Lechler, PR Johnnie Lee Higgins, KR Justin Miller, LS Jon Condo. Core special teams players: LB Isaiah Ekejiuba, S Tyvon Branch, S Mike Mitchell, LB Jon Alston, TE Tony Stewart, LB Ricky Brown.
Easily the strongest three units on the team last year and the best all-around special teams play since the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995. The Raiders not only made Lechler the highest-paid punter ever and Nnamdi Asomugha the highest-paid corner ever, but justifiably sank the most money ever into a pure special teams player in Ekejiuba. Higgins and Miller had two TDs each last year on returns. Looking forward to seeing the damage Mike Mitchell can do in this area until he gets up to speed in the secondary. You never hear from Condo, just a steady procession of good snaps and good mobility as in punt coverage. Seabass does what Seabass does. An extremely accurate kicker from 40 yards and in. Like all kickers, he falls off dramatically from long distance although he’s got more than enough leg. That was, however, supposed to be his specialty.
The key battle: Branch vs. Miller. With pretty much all key specialists virtually accounted for (other than roster jumbling positions on the line), it’s difficult to find one. Branch was considered a hard-running kickoff return specialist but never got a chance to show it because of a training camp injury and then a shoulder injury on one of his early returns.
What I think: John Fassel has some huge shoes to fill. Brian Schneider, who opted to become the special teams coordinator at USC rather than stay in the NFL with the Raiders, did the best job of any Raiders coach last season. They would have taken him back, too, even though he was one of Lane Kiffin’s guys. Fassel must work through vets like Ekejiuba and get the ear of this unit.
What could go wrong: Coverage units revert to erratic nature of previous years _ one big return per game. Huge momentum killers which have plagued the Raiders for five of the last six years.
Will head to Napa later as players begin to trickle. Check here for posts if news breaks as well as my Twitter account.