Camp wrap ’08: defense

Impressions gathered from viewing 24 of 26 training camp practices over the course of 21 days:

– Not long after camp opened, Lane Kiffin offered a preemptive strike, musing about the importance of the offseason program in light of the fact that his two best players weren’t even participants.

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha walked into camp on time, signed his exclusive free agent tender and was so good he looked like a bargain at $9.7 million.

Defensive end Derrick Burgess put on eight to 10 pounds of muscle working out on his own, showing up only to the mandatory minicamp, and was essentially unblockable. Raiders tackles found themselves getting nothing but air or simply being shoved aside by one of Burgess’ perfectly sculpted arms.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is flopping sides with Burgess now and then, moving him from his more familiar left side to the right. The idea is to get him an a single blocker from time to time, rather than the double-team plus a chip treatment he has received so often the last two years.

The truth about training camp defense is it is can be extremely deceiving because there is no actual tackling. Tackling only happens to be the most important thing about defense.

But there was no mistaking what Asomugha brought to pass coverage and Burgess brought to the pass rush. If health is not an issue, and Asomugha’s sore foot is at least a little troubling, the Raiders have two cornerstone defensive players to help build a viable defense.

– Training camp restrictions being what they are, there is no way to know for sure if the Raiders have repaired the gaping hole in the middle of their defense which opposing runners ran through repeatedly in 2007.

They should be better, but how much better? Do they go from giving up an embarrassing 4.8 yards per carry to the 4.0 range, or could they actually do even better and be above average.

Two reasons for optimism _ Tommy Kelly’s brief but dominating appearance against the San Francisco 49ers, and the presence of Gibril Wilson at strong safety.

Kelly has a ways to go in terms of conditioning, as witnessed by his feeble yet comic attempt at taking a lap the other night after being called for offsides. Kelly was collapsing the 49ers line almost single-handedly, but to do that for four quarters he will need more stamina. Rehab from knee surgery put him behind, and Kelly needs to catch up.

The Raiders aren’t paying him all that money to be a part time player.

Wilson has been a guy who plays bigger than the 210 pounds or so he weighs, and his presence in the box will be a welcome one in a division featuring LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and whoever is the Broncos runner of the week.

– More optimism regarding the run defense _ linebacker Thomas Howard looks a little bigger and a little meaner without sacrificing the speed and ability that makes him one of the NFL’s best pass coverage linebackers. He and Kirk Morrison are intent on shedding their reputation as pass defenders who give ground against the run.

They need to be much, much better than a year ago. The two or three series they play against a hard-nosed Tennessee running game will be a good litmus test.

– The Raiders brought a lot of pressure during training camp, which makes aggressive amateur defensive coordinators salivate with the possibility of more blitzing.

Much of the additional pressure was to prepare JaMarcus Russell for what the Raiders think he’ll see. Kiffin could have been sandbagging, but more likely he was telling it like it is the other day when he was addressing Stanford Routt’s role as a nickel back and said, “We’re not very complicated on third down, our defense. We don’t blitz very much so he doesn’t have to do very much.”

– The play of Raiders’ offensive tackles makes it a tough call, but there may be some help for Burgess in terms of a natural rush. Jay Richardson, a decent point-of-attack player as a rookie and tall enough to take away passing lanes, has had some success getting deeper into the backfield. Kalimba Edwards has practices where it looks as if he will fit nicely into the Chris Clemons role as a situational rusher.

– The resurrection of Terdell Sands to be the kind of inside force he was as a part-time player in 2006 is still far from complete. Sands conceded he went into an understandable funk last year after the death of his mother and let his weight get out of control.

He is lighter this year _ how much, no one will say _ but he has already had a knee drained and is missing practices. It’s tough to get into shape that way. Sands will probably continue to back up Gerard Warren, who through most of his career has been either impressive or invisible _ sometimes from one week to the next.

– In early practices, sixth-round pick Trevor Scott looked like he might be a wasted pick. Later, he looked like he might be a find. Line coach Keith Millard beams like a proud papa when Scott’s progress is the topic.

Yet you see Scott in person and it’s almost alarming. He physically resembles Stuart Schweigert, and in fact doesn’t look much bigger. Listed at 255, Scott, in truth, is slightly under 250. He won’t be 260 until next year at the earliest.

– When camp started, Michael Huff looked liberated to be at free safety and making the occasional play with the kind of anticipation the position requires. The plays became more infrequent as time went on.

It’s nearing make-or-break time for Huff to justify his No. 7 overall selection in 2006, and it’s a tossup as to which way it will go.

– The whole strong side linebacker issue makes for interesting reading, being that it’s a starting position and all, but the truth is the winner will be the first player off the field when its time for nickels and dimes.

That’s why the Raiders didn’t make a serious run at Takeo Spikes, who wound up in San Francisco. They’d rather pay the veteran’s minimum for an Adam Archuleta than invest another half-million or so into a player who would be an ideal strong side linebacker but spend too much time on the sidelines to justify the money.

Not saying it’s right, and in fact it probably isn’t in this case.

– DeAngelo Hall is going to catch some heat, both from opposing quarterbacks as well as the home fans. Teams are still going to avoid Asomugha, and Hall will be there for the taking. He will also occasionally make a break on the ball and make a big play, and has a knack for being in the area when balls are deflected.

If you’re expecting a shutdown corner, guess again. There are precious few of those around.

– Routt has had an excellent training camp. He could have been miffed by Hall’s acquisition but instead has appeared to elevate his performance in practice.

Now it has to carry over into games. One of Hall’s strengths is he forgets when he just got beat and it doesn’t prevent him from coming back to make a play. Routt has had a habit of letting the failures which come with the territory affect him for the rest of the game.

Routt will need to be at the top of his game, because things get extremely thin after that at cornerback.

– Bad break for Tyvon Branch, with his right thumb encased in a cast. He could still end up being a defensive contributor at some point during the season, if his goal line hit against the 49ers’ Cam Colvin is any indication.

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Wesley cut

Whether the Raiders utilize Adam Archuleta at linebacker or safety remains to be seen, but they cut a safety to make room for him.

Greg Wesley, omitted from the morning roster but on the field, was released later in the day, according to a league source.

UPDATE: The Raiders have updated Archuleta’s signing and the release of Wesley on their Web site.

It’s also an even swap in terms of salary. Archuleta, should he make the 53-man roster, will make the same $730,000 that Wesley was to receive. Kiffin danced around the topic of Wesley’s status following practice.

“I don’t know that yet. He did move around well today,” Kiffin said. “Had a good workout the day before that but I don’t know that yet.”

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Training camp, Day 8 (A.M. practice)

Quick hits from Thursday morning’s practice:

– He may not have had his best fastball, but JaMarcus Russell was felt good enough to rejoin practice and make due with off-speed stuff, choosing to simply flick his wrist rather than unleash the full power of his $60 million right arm.

In his first team session, Russell completed two of five passes, one a short pass to Johnnie Lee Higgins and a dump-off to fullback Oren O’Neal. Michael Huff broke up a sideline pass intended for tight end Darrell Strong, a screen to Louis Rankin fell incomplete and Derrick Burgess pressured him into an incomplete pass.

In Russell’s second team session, there were two more short completions.

During seven-on-seven drills, Russell was the victim of a perfectly-played pick by Nnamdi Asomugha, who stole a pass intended for Arman Shields in stride and ran the other for what would have been a touchdown.

“You can see a little bit of a velocity issue with him right now, different from normal,” Kiffin said. “I think that will go away here pretty soon.”

Kiffin said the staff watched Russell closely and that trainer Rod Martin gave the go-ahead to continue.

Russell acknowledged he wasn’t 100 percent but wasn’t comfortable watching from the sidelines.

“I just wanted to get out here today just so I could get back in practice,” Russell said. “I don’t really like sitting out and watching guys bust their behinds when I can be out there doing something. Just anything out there I can help.”

– Right guard Cooper Carlisle and right tackle Cornell Green were given the morning session off, with the Raiders reshuffling their line to accomodate the absence of two starters. Seth Wand got some work at right tackle, Chris Morris at right guard, and Mario Henderson has been working on both sides.

– Speaking of Henderson, it sounds as if Kiffin’s patience has about run out on the first of three third-round picks in the 2007 draft. During the offseason, Kiffin said the Raiders were working on Henderson’s lack of aggression and his passion for football.

It sounds like Kiffin and line coach Tom Cable haven’t made much headway. Rather than shift into coach-speak when asked if Henderson was challenging Green at right tackle, Kiffin was blunt and to the point.

“No, he’s not pushing him. We’ll continue to move Mario around to both sides,” Kiffin said. “Mario is not improving the way we’d like him to so we’ll just continue to push him. But it’s not close right now.”

When asked if Henderson needed to shore up a particular area, Kiffin said, “No, it’s everything right now. Unfortunately.”

– Sounds like Javon Walker, the free agent aquisition whose salary suggests he is the No. 1 receiver but whose practice play has been so-so, will begin getting some extra work starting Monday.

Kiffin said Walker and Fred Wakefield, rehabbing from a knee injury, would begin working twice per day Sunday when the 49ers visit Napa.

When asked if Walker was making progress, Kiffin said, “There’s progress being made. I wouldn’t say as much as I’d like at this point so we’re going to continue to push them. I think pushing him back into two-a-days will help him.”

– Defensive tackle Gerard Warren missed with a thigh injury sustained Wednesday night. Kiffin said he didn’t think the injury was as serious as one that hampered Warren last year and said he was day-to-day. Tommy Kelly sat out as scheduled and should practice tonight. Cornerback John Bowie (knee) did not practice.

Safety Greg Wesley (back spasms) was back at practice but did little of note.

– Defensive tackle Terdell Sands, who has avoided speaking with reporters for the first week of camp for reasons that ranged from a team meal to a team meeting to a doctor’s visit, stopped and chatted for a few minutes.

He conceded to being in better condition this year and was affected last season by the death of his mother.

“I lost my mother last year, so that was very big,” Sands said. “You lose anything like that, some things take tolls on you. You lose things that are aspects of life right there. That’s behind me. I’ve got to push on this year.”

Sands said he takes responsibility for the Raiders’ run defense in 2008.

“I take it all, because they look for me to be a big part of it,” Sands said. “And like I say, I wasn’t mentally in it, so I did some gap responsibility and all my true effort wasn’t out there. I thought I was. But when I watch film, it really wasn’t like I was the year before. So I take responsibility and put it on myself.”

Sands declined to specify how much he weighed last year and how much he weighs now.

– Kiffin has taken to visiting with members of the Raiders’ personnel department occasionally during practice sessions. Wednesday it was Bruce Kebric, Thursday it was Kent McCloughan.

– Defensive tackle William Joseph was worked over by Chris Morris and Jesse Boone on consecutive plays during a blocking drill. Kwame Harris buried Kalimba Edwards on another.

– McFadden was fielding kickoffs along with Hiram Eugene, Rankin, Adimchinobe Echemandu and Tyvon Branch, prompting Kiffin to be asked whether the Raiders’ biggest off-season investment might be utilized on that role.

“He’s such an explosive player that it’s something we have to look at,” Kiffin said. “Part of that will be determined by how the other returners do. Let’s say Branch in preseason is returning great. Then it’s not worth it. If you have a great return situation to put Darren out there that may not be worth it. If we’re struggling, then it becomes more valuable to us.”

Said McFadden, who has been in camp eight days and has had a sunny and agreeable disposition for every one of them: “I don’t know if they’re going to use me back there or not but I’m always prepared for it.”

– Practice joggers for pre-snap violations included Harris, Robert Gallery, tight end Chris Wagner and defensive end Greyson Gunheim.

Gunheim, an undrafted free agent from Washington, actually protested his lap, telling Kiffin that Henderson had first moved his leg, drawing him offsides. Gunheim was right, by the way.

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Analyzing the final 53

QUARTERBACKS (3)–Daunte Culpepper, Josh McCown, Andrew Walter.

Last call: When (and if) JaMarcus Russell signs, he receives a two-week exemption before the Raiders decide whether or not to carry four quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)–LaMont Jordan, Justin Griffith, Adimchinobe Echemandu, Justin Fargas, Oren O’Neal.

Last call: It was decided O’Neal had too much potential to lose, particularly as the sort of blocker Tom Rathman loves. Zack Crockett could have been kept on the roster until Dominic Rhodes came off the suspended list, but would have been entitled to a full season of pay as a vested veteran if on the roster Week 1.

Michael Bush will be evaluated and has a four-week window to return, which begins Week 7.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)–Ronald Curry, Jerry Porter, Mike Williams, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Travis Taylor.

Last call: No surprises here. Alvis Whitted and Carlos Francis lost their speed scholarships, and Chris McFoy is this year’s Will Buchanon _ watch for him on the practice squad.

TIGHT ENDS (3)–Zach Miller, John Madsen, Tony Stewart.

Last call: O.J. Santiago, James Adkisson . . . Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)_Barry Sims, Robert Gallery, Jake Grove, Jeremy Newberry, Cooper Carlisle, Cornell Green, Chris Morris, Mario Henderson, Paul McQuistan.

Last call: Coach Lane Kiffin noted early on that Kevin Boothe was not a system fit, but for him to not even make the 53-man roster after starting 14 times last season is a surprise. Morris apparently fits the system better and has played extensively as a guard. Chad Slaughter missed much of training camp with a calf injury. Mark Wilson was a longshot. With Grove, Newberry and Morris available at center, there was no room for Jesse Boone.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)–Derrick Burgess, Warren Sapp, Terdell Sands, Tommy Kelly, Jay Richardson, Tyler Brayton, Chris Clemons, Gerard Warren.

Last call: Ever hear of Michigan cornerback Brad Cochran? The Raiders took him in the third round of the 1986 draft and he didn’t make the team. Quentin Moses was the first of three third-round draft picks, No. 65 overall. He was supposedly in contention to be a starter until late in camp and now he’s gone, the first time Oakland has dumped a third-round pick since Cochran.

It could be Moses was outplayed by two players _ Richardson drafted two rounds later out of Ohio State, and Clemons, who played extensively in the preseason as a nickel rusher and can also play linebacker.

Maybe Richardson plays better than most third-rounders and it doesn’t look so bad. But cutting the first pick of the third round means you made a mistake.

The Raiders apparently felt Anttaj Hawthorne was as good as he was going to get, while believing Warren can recapture at least some of the skill that made him a standout two years ago in Denver _ once he gets in shape.

Dave Tollefson was a longshot. Brayton’s shift to tackle probably saved him. Coaches love the guy.

LINEBACKERS (7)–Sam Williams, Kirk Morrison, Thomas Howard, Robert Thomas, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Ricky Brown, Jon Condo.

Last call: Kyle Shotwell and Kurt Campbell were foregone conclusions.

According to Madden ’07, Ekejiuba rates as the NFL’s worst player. The Raiders think enough of him to keep him on the roster even though he may not be available for a month. Brown’s special teams skills kept him around. Condo is strictly a long-snapper.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (11)–Nnamdi Asomugha, Fabian Washington, Michael Huff, Stuart Schweigert, Stanford Routt, Chris Carr, Duane Starks, B.J. Ward, Hiram Eugene, John Bowie, Chris Johnson.

Last call: The Raiders apparently didn’t believe Donovin Darius could hold up physically or simply didn’t have it any more. They didn’t feel that way at first. This is what Rob Ryan had to say about Darius on Aug. 7:

“I mean, first of all with Donovin Darius you’re talking about a guy that’s got an aura about him. He’s a man, he walks on that football field, he demands respect . . . When he’s on that field, people are scared to death of him. And so we like that intimidation factor. Hey, he’s a good, clean player but he plays the game hard like the Raiders do. He’s got to learn our system and fit in. But trust me, all defenses have spots for great players, and he’s a tremendous player, he’s been a tremendous player in this league, and we’re excited about him. And his leadership and his toughness are great plusses for the Raiders.”

Darius played extensively against Seattle, but minor injuries slowed him throughout camp. Looking into their crystal ball, chances are the Raiders saw either a season-ending injury or a series of minor ones which would make continuity difficult.

Darius played in only 12 of 32 games the previous two years for Jacksonville, with a torn ACL in 2005 and a broken bone in his lower left leg in 2006.

Eric Frampton, noted as a playmaker at Washington State, did not standout either in practice or in the preseason.

Johnson survived an awful night against Seattle to make the roster on speed and special teams potential. Marquice Cole, an undrafted free agent, could be practice squad material.

Starks is the perfect guy to teach the technical part of the game to Bowie, a raw rookie. Both had interceptions against the Seahawks.

Of course, there’s still a week to go before the opener and there could be more moves on the horizon.

KICKERS (2)_Sebastian Janikowski, Shane Lechler.

Last call: Tyler Fredrickson was around to caddy for the two established kickers.

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