Oakland's weakness: Passing game

June, 2, 2009
6/02/09
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Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

I like the way Oakland runs the football under coach Tom Cable. Its zone-blocking attack is well coached and quite effective while its stable of running backs is among the best in the league. But I am still far from convinced that the Raiders' passing game will be significantly better in 2009. There are just too many question marks.

 
  Kyle Terada/US Presswire
  JaMarcus Russell took some positive steps last year, but he's still far from being an established passer.

First, the good. I am a believer in tight end Zach Miller as an excellent -- and safe -- intermediate option for JaMarcus Russell, who needs all of the reliable options he can get right now. Miller should be primed for a breakout season.

Also, the running backs, particularly Darren McFadden, should have an expanded role catching the ball. McFadden has the potential to contribute in many ways in this phase of the game. If he's used properly, McFadden should be a true asset as a receiver in a similar manner to how New Orleans utilizes Reggie Bush. But that is about where I stop saying good things about the Raiders' passing game.

Obviously, Russell has a world of ability, but he is still quite far from being an established passer. He took some encouraging steps to finish the 2008 season, but his accuracy and touch are still questionable, as is his ability to manipulate a defense and make anticipatory throws. His 53.8 completion percentage from a year ago might tell us all we need to know about his ability to put the ball where it needs to be. Inaccurate quarterbacks do not succeed in the NFL.

Russell's supporting cast hasn't exactly helped his cause either. Although there have been changes made, I am not sold that this group is much better than a year ago, when the Raiders failed to have a wide receiver haul in more than 22 passes. Javon Walker has been the definition of a bust since being signed to big money. Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins have their roles, but neither should be a primary option. Schilens is a physical possession guy and Higgins can run by nearly anyone covering him, but both need to refine other aspects of their games.

Of course, the Raiders did select Darrius Heyward-Bey in the first round. Like many others, I feel as though Oakland pulled the trigger on Heyward-Bey too early on draft day, but he does fit what they crave out of the wide receiver position. Sure, he is raw and needs work in several areas, but his burst and long speed are undeniable. Louis Murphy is another rookie who could factor in and yes, you guessed it, he can really run as well.

Some other aspects of this attack give me pause, though. First off, is the protection going to be a lot better? Maybe slightly, but I can't see it dramatically changing. LT Khalif Barnes has underachieved of late and Samson Satele is a slight downgrade from Jake Grove at the pivot. Still, while depth is worrisome, the offensive tackle play should be improved, Mario Henderson has shown some promise, and the starting guards are quite solid. Overall, the line has been upgraded, but just not by leaps and bounds.

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Also, signing QB Jeff Garcia was curious. He very well could be better than Russell and very well could have been the best available option when he was signed, but his style of play could not be any more radically different than Russell's. Can the Raiders possibly keep the same style of play calling with the noodle-armed Garcia in the game instead of Russell, who has a rocket for a right arm? Will they have two different playbooks to utilize Garcia's roll-out abilities and quick-hitting skills?

Everything could come together for Oakland's passing attack this season. There are a lot of young players who do have upside. But overall, there are just too many question marks for my taste.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. 

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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