Last in a series analyzing Raiders position groups with free agency underway and Oakland appearing to stay out of the first wave:
Key players: P Shane Lechler, PK Sebastian Janikowski, LS Jon Condo, KR Gary Russell,KR Jonathan Holland, KR Nick Miller, PR Johnnie Lee HIggins, LB Isaiah Ekejiuba, S Mike Mitchell, S Tyvon Branch, LB Jon Alston, LB Ricky Brown, S Hiram Eugene, TE Brandon Myers.
Review: Jekyll and Hyde. The best kicking game in the NFL and one of the worst at returning kicks. The Raiders put three special teams players in the Pro Bowl _ Lechler, Janikowski and Condo _ and ended up ranked only 13th in rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. Gosselin’s rankings are a must-read for every special teams coach in the league and are considered the beat barometer of which team is excelling in that area.
On the plus side, Lechler’s 51.1 net punting average is an all-time record and Janikowski didn’t miss a kick inside 45 yards. If Condo has made a bad snap in three years, I don’t remember it. The Raiders forced a league-high five turnovers on special teams, including a strip-recovery against Cincinnati on a kick return that helped win the game.
On the other hand, the Raiders averaged 18.2 yards per kickoff return and their average starting point (22.8 yard line) was also the worst. Oakland averaged 4.9 yards per punt return, at least managing to be better than the 49ers, who were dead last at 4.4.
Contract status: Most teams pay lip service to the importance of special teams, the Raiders say it with their checkbook. Lechler and Janikowski are the highest paid players ever at their specialties. Ekejiuba is the highest paid pure special teams player who doesn’t return kicks. Jaws dropped throughout the league when the Raiders put a second-round tender on Condo. All told, they’ll put out more than $7.7 million in salary alone for those four players this year. (Earlier, I wrote $7.1, but shortchanged Lechler $600,000 in salary).
Oakland also put a second-round tender on Ricky Brown, a prominent special teamer. Alston and Russell are unrestricted free agents who weren’t given qualifying offers.
What’s next: The Raiders must have kept Miller around for a reason after a broken tibia prior to the opener ended up derailing his rookie season. It wasn’t until the season finale Miller went on injured reserve, while the Raiders struggled on kickoff returns with Holland and Russell. If Miller isn’t what they hoped, they need a new, fresh, fast face which could be provided by the draft.
It’s a big year for Higgins, who was a dangerous punt return specialist in 2009 but averaged only 5.2 with a long of 19 in 2010. Higgins was leveled in the opener by San Diego’s Eric Weddle and although he said he was fine, appeared to be tentative until very late in the season.
With explosive athletes such as Branch and Mitchell around, the Raiders should be consistently one of the best coverage teams but somehow gave up 25.7 yards per return _ 32nd in the league. That’s on special teams coach Jon Fassel and assistant Aaron Pelch, the latter who left the staff recently to become head coach at Millsaps College.
The Raiders were better in returns and coverage under Brian Schneider, who joined Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks after a year at USC.