In response to a question in a weekly feature on Raiders.com, Raiders coach Hue Jackson singled out defensive end Matt Shaughnessy as the club’s most improved player in 2010.
It was Jackson’s way of getting the word out on a young player on the rise, and Shaughnessy indeed improved by leaps and bounds and may be a year or two away from becoming an elite defensive end.
The Raiders rise from 5-11 to 8-8 had everything to do with the improvement of certain players, and while Shaughnessy was one of those, you’d have a hard time convincing me he was any better than the fourth most improved player on the team.
Running back Darren McFadden was not only the most improved player on the Raiders, but probably the most improved player in the league. He’s another big year away from making all the criticisms about skinny legs and shoestring tackles a distant memory. If they ever truly integrate McFadden’s considerable skills as a receiver (think 80 catches, 800 yards) and he runs as hard as he did in 2010, the NFL’s 98th ranked best player will vault into the top 20.
Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly lost about 35 to 40 pounds and finally justified the huge contract bestowed upon him before the 2008 season. His teammates voted him as the recipient of the Eric Turner Award as the club’s most valuable defensive player. Yes, ahead of Richard Seymour.
Cornerback Stanford Routt had lost his starting job to Chris Johnson but seized it during training camp and never relinquished it. He allowed opposing quarterbacks a less than 40 percent completion rate in his area and although he gave up a few touchdowns (inevitable playing opposite Nnamdi Asomugha) he cashed in with a big contract extension and is likely this year’s top corner on a team that puts more pressure on the position than any other.
Kelly and Routt were rarities in that they had big jumps in production well into their careers. Kelly was in his seventh season. In most cases, top players have already identified themselves as such by that point.
Shaughnessy was also joined by players such as fullback Marcel Reece, a unique offensive threat for his position, as someone who made huge strides and established himself as solid NFL player.
The Raiders got better because players got better, and taking the next step to a division title or playoff contender will require similar improvements from the following players:
QB Jason Campbell
A new coordinator, but for a change, the same system. Campbell proved he can be a highly efficient quarterback when the Raiders running game is in high gear. But it’s not always going to be that way. In some games, it simply won’t happen, and Campbell will have to convert clutch passes under pressure to lead the Raiders to a win in a game.
Jackson has gone out of his way to let everyone know it’s Campbell’s team. They didn’t make a move to re-sign Bruce Gradkowski, opting for Kyle Boller. Campbell ran the offense at Camp Seymour and has been working with receivers. He is in the last year of his contract. It’s now or never.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
It’s nice that he has a terrific attitude, is a willing and physical downfield blocker and has the speed to stretch out a defense. None of that matters much unless he can throw in at least 45 catches, 750 to 800 yards and six or seven touchdowns. Those aren’t elite numbers, but they’d add a huge amount to an already explosive offense.
MLB Rolando McClain
McClain asserted himself as a defensive leader and was lauded for his smarts and film study. He certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.
The next step is going beyond simply being in the right place at the right time. It’s making the play and forcing turnovers once he gets there.
SS Tyvon Branch
Jackson is doing his share of pumping up Branch, saying, “He plays as well and as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen play the game” in the radio interview.
There is no questioning Branch’s effort, heart, speed and tools. But he was victimized often in pass coverage last year and needs to be better. Much, much better.
LT Jared Veldheer
Veldheer’s ascension to the starting lineup was a welcome surprise, particularly since Mario Henderson couldn’t seize the job. Veldheer mowed down the mediocre right ends (and right outside linebackers in the 3-4) in games the Raiders won big.
But he had some extremely difficult games against more stout competition such as Pittsburgh, Miami (Cameron Wake) and others. If that’s where the Raiders want to go, Veldheer will have to block the league’s top edge players.