With reporting day less than two weeks away, the third in a series of questions and issues to be sorted out in Napa:
Will the real Johnnie Lee Higgins please stand up?
Any hopes Higgins had of building on a second season when he had established himself as one of the NFL’s most explosive players were ended in Week 1, when he took a ferocious hit from San Diego’s Eric Weddle. Higgins was knocked out on the play, and although he insisted he was fine when he resumed play in Week 3, statistical evidence suggests the hit KO’d his season as well.
He finished the season averaging a miniscule 5.4 yards per punt attempt with no return longer than 19 yards. On offense, Higgins caught 19 passes for 233 yards. In 15 games, Higgins never reached the end zone. One year after having nine plays which measured 35 yards or more, Higgins had none.
Contrast that with 2008, when Higgins was one of the few bright lights, scoring a team-high six of the Raiders’ 22 touchdowns. He gave Oakland the capability of scoring from anywhere on the field, with punt return scores of 93, 89 and 80 yards and touchdown receptions of 84, 56 and 29 yards. Higgins’ six touchdowns came from an average distance of 71.8 yards.
It’s the kind of playmaking skill Al Davis loves, and something special teams coach John Fassel as well as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will hope to rejuvenate during this year’s training camp.
The ability to return kicks can come and go. In his first two years as a Raider, Phillip Buchanon had the look of one of the great punt return specialists in the league _ before he mysteriously lost the nerve.
The Raiders selected Jacoby Ford, a speedy rookie out of Clemson, in the fourth round. Ford’s ticket to the roster puts him in direct competition with Higgins as a return specialist and wide receiver. Nick Miller, the undrafted free agent who made the 53-man roster last season only to spend 15 weeks on the inactive list with a broken fibula, is back for another go-round.
If Higgins can perform like a reasonable facsimile of the player he was in 2008, his spot on the roster is a no-brainer. But if he is the tentative, error-prone player of a year ago, it’s a different story.