By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 5:39 pm in Oakland Raiders.
Some training camp highlights and lowlights as the Raiders resume the preseason Friday with a walkthrough in Alameda:
Top offensive player: RB Darren McFadden. Not the clear-cut choice he was last year, but the pre-turf toe explosion around the edge is back. As for his hands, there are Raiders scouts who believe he’d be a terrific wide receiver.
“However coach (Tom) Cable feels like he wants to split the carries or however he wants to split the time is fine because eventually we’re all going to have to get out there and play,” McFadden said Thursday addressing the breakdown of how to use the backfield.
Job 1 for Cable is to make sure McFadden touches the ball 20 times per game. A 15-rush, five-reception minimum is a good place to start. Work Michael Bush and Justin Fargas in around that framework.
Top defensive player: The best defensive player, and it’s not even close, is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. But Asomugha missed a lot of snaps and is essentially on his own schedule to make sure he’s ready to go in Week 1. So we’ll go instead with strong safety Tyvon Branch, who never missed a single snap.
For a guy who missed half the season following shoulder surgery and was primarily a special teams player, Branch stepped into a starting role and looked as if he’d done it for three years. The Raiders loved him for his physicality last year, but he’s proven to be good in coverage during camp, probably leading the team in interceptions.
Branch admits he wasn’t sure what to think when the Raiders made Mike Mitchell, a classic strong safety, their second round pick, but was pleasantly surprised when he was told going into the season it was his job to lose.
He played cornerback at UConn and was a linebacker in high school, so strong safety has been a good fit.
Most improved: QB JaMarcus Russell. Not improved from the end of last season until now, but from two weeks ago until now.
Russell admitted he was heavy when he arrived in camp, Cable later confirmed he had talked to him about it, and on a few occasions during the offseason the coach dropped hints that the face of the franchise needed to assume a leadership role and be the hardest working and most dedicated guy in the building.
Over the last two weeks, Russell looks as if he’s been doing something right behind the scenes, because quarterbacks don’t just get better overnight even if it appears that way. Russell is far from a finished product, but at least now he looks capable of giving the Raiders their first respectable passing offense in three years.
“Guys in the last week or so have been on the same page, moving faster than we’ve moved (before),” Russell said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing out there.”
Best camp rookie: WR Louis Murphy. Murphy, a fourth-round pick out of Florida, has exhibited very good hands, picked up things quickly and runs with a natural glide as he turns the corner after catching a crossing route. Missed a few days of practice after a hip injury against Dallas, but has had very few subpar days _ rare for a rookie.
Roughest start: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey looked to be carrying the weight of his $23.5 million guarantee on his shoulders, dropping by one count 11 passes in his first three sessions. The very first pass thrown his way _ hardly fair because he came out later after signing and hadn’t warmed up _ clanked off his hands.
After one drop-filled practice, Heyward-Bey and wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal were brought over to the golf cart containing Al Davis for a chat.
“He just told me, we know who you are, we know how you play, just do what you do,” Heyward-Bey said.
The silver lining? The first practices set the bar so low Heyward-Bey had nowhere to go but up. And go up he did. He still drops a pass or two every practice and it will likely be a recurring theme.
But he’s also begun to accelerate into the ball of late and look capable of making some big plays.
Best practice scuffle: Murphy vs. Mitchell. On reporting day, Mitchell jokingly called out Murphy because he was talking too much about Florida and giving no respect to Ohio University.
Murphy was blocking Mitchell one day when suddenly fists started flying. Murphy lost his helmet, then swung and hit Mitchell in the helmet with his bare hand. Fortunately he wasn’t injured.
Jon Alston was involved in a skirmish or three, but it was a fairly calm camp in terms of fisticuffs.
Most disappointing injuries: WR Chaz Schilens and SS Mike Mitchell. Schilens was the best receiver in camp and it wasn’t even close. More than that, he was the best player in camp. At any position. He sustained a broken fifth metatarsal while running a pass pattern, had a screw inserted in his foot, and the best-case scenario has him out for the first two games.
Mitchell, hampered by hamstring injuries both before his Pro Day and again at minicamp, has been shut down and Cable seems unsure when he’ll return. He’s got the classic build of a strong safety, a lust for contact and an engaging, positive personality. But Mitchell is also extremely raw and has missed valuable time needed to prove himself as one of the draft’s most controversial picks.
Best undrafted free agents: DT Desmond Bryant and WR Nick Miller. Listen to Cable for five minutes and it’s tough to conclude anything other than the fact that Bryant is on the verge of pushing Terdell Sands right off the roster. Bryant hasn’t been overwhelmed by the NFL and doesn’t pretend to be.
“Surprisingly (the transition) hasn’t been as bad as I thought,” Bryant said. “The speed of the game is a little faster, the biggest thing is technique.I could use that more.”
Miller, listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, looks like one of the ball boys until he gets the ball in his hands. If the Raiders weren’t serious about keeping Miller, they wouldn’t be running so many reverses and schemes that play to his strength.
“I’ve left everything out on the field and I’ve got no regrets,” Miller said. They’re putting in plays that acclimate me to the game and put me in position to make big plays. That’s awesome for me. Any time I have the ball in my hands, I have a chance to make a big play.”
Most surprising development: TE Brandon Myers, who was talked up as a blocker by Cable after the draft, looks to be as sure-handed as starter Zach Miller. Nice catch on a sixth-round pick. Enough to make you forget the guy picked three spots ahead of him, defensive end Stryker Sulak, cut before camp began.
Most artificial competitions: Russell vs. Jeff Garcia at QB; Mario Henderson vs. Khalif Barnes at LT. Never mind the pre-camp chatter. The only way Russell and Henderson weren’t starting was because of injury or personal catastrophe. That Garcia (calf) and Barnes (ankle) got hurt only gave the battles earlier clarity. And both backups could be valuable. Interesting to see if Barnes simply settles in as a backup left tackle or considers learning the right side.
Most surprising competition: Chris Johnson vs. Stanford Routt at CB; Ricky Brown vs. Kirk Morrison at MLB. Johnson signed a four-year deal with a $4 million signing bonus, seemingly cementing his status opposite Asomugha. Instead, Cable said Routt continues to press the issue and it’s not decided. Still think it’ll be Johnson starting with Routt in the slot as the nickel back.
Cable judged Morrison to be in the lead at the time he sustained a dislocated elbow, but the veteran is a little dismayed that after leading the Raiders in tackles for the last three years, he was splitting time with Brown.
Most disheartening practice: During the end of a morning session on Aug. 19, the 49ers defense destroyed the Raiders offense in a red zone drill, intercepting Russell and Bruce Gradkowski four times. It wasn’t much better in drills and team sessions leading up to the finale.
Most embarrassing moment: LB Brown was destroyed by 49ers RB Frank Gore, and much hooting and hollering ensued.
Most effective assistant coach: QB coach Paul Hackett. To say Hackett is a stickler for details is an understatement. Never mind being pushed by Garcia. Russell is learning just about everything there is to know about playing quarterback by one of the best technicians in the business.
Every day, the quarterbacks meet for mini-clinic on some facet of the position, and sometimes you’re close enough to hear it. Hackett drills them on footwork issues, how they walk to and from a huddle, and has them recite plays, making sure they enunciate clearly and speak with authority.
Best cure for insomnia: Cable’s “learning phase. Four days of double sessions where plays weren’t run to their conclusion, with footwork, choreography and knowledge are stressed above all else. Cable and the players seemed to swear by it, but it was “Dancing with the Stars” in uniform. And at half-speed.
Best comeback: FB Oren O’Neal and WR Javon Walker. Personally, I didn’t think either would be much of a factor. O’Neal would be given more time to heal from a debilitating knee injury with the arrival of Lorenzo Neal. As for Walker, I’d pretty much written him off after all of last season’s trevails.
Wrong, and wrong again.
Least likely to complain to the NLRB: Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski. Ah, the life of a kicker. They don’t do much, and give way to Ricky Schmitt whenever they please. Lechler somehow managed end up with a groin injury from all the standing around.
Most predictable dump jobs: No shows to anything voluntary, Derrick Burgess was finally shown the door for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick (now that the Patriots have acquired a fifth-round pick by trade, it goes to Oakland) and Andrew Walter was cut. He wound with the Patriots as well.
Most miles on the odometer: FB Lorenzo Neal was put on injured reserve (and later received an injury settlement) after a hamstring injury, but the Raiders had already determined he was running on empty. He’s talking retirement.
Most welcome development: It was all quiet on the Mario Henderson front, as Lane Kiffin’s media punching bag enjoyed an extremely quiet camp _ always a good thing for an offensive lineman.
Least vital organ: Robert Gallery lost an appendix and a handful of practice sessions, but little else.
Best clip-and-save quote: “I’m telling you, we are going to pressure teams. I can see it in John’s eyes,” linebacker Thomas Howard, convinced defensive coordinator John Marshall will bring the house with all manner of blitzes.
Most invisible formation: No Wildcat sightings in Napa.
Most potentially overblown story: Cable’s alleged tussle with defensive backs assistant Randy Hanson became a lead story on SportsCenter right up there with Vick and Favre. And if the Napa police don’t find Hanson credible, it all goes away . . . of course, if they find evidence to implicate Cable, it becomes the . . .
Most potentially damaging story: The only way Cable vs. Hanson is an issue is if the head coach is prosecuted by law enforcement and/or suspended by the league. Otherwise, the situation is light years from the Kiffin-Al Davis standoff that sent last season into the toilet.
Best spontaneous comedy: “Cable, bomaye, Cable, bomaye.”