- Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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NAPA, Calif. -- Dennis Allen’s third training camp has been mellow thus far, at least by Oakland Raiders standards of recent vintage. No holdouts. No practice field fights. No drama. No season-ending injuries.
And that pound you just heard emanating from wine country? That was Allen and third-year general manager Reggie McKenzie knocking on wood. Heavily.
Sure, things have been calm in the preseason streets of Silver and Blackdom, and for an organization in Year 1 of a self-styled reconstruction, that’s a good thing. The rebuilt offensive line, with four new starters, is jelling. The rebuilt defensive line, with three new starters, has the look of a beastly unit, while the linebackers, featuring No. 5 overall draft pick Khalil Mack, are as active as they are hungry.
The fusion of the new guys with championship pedigrees and the old guard of Raiders players appears seamless. Indeed, the talent on the overhauled roster is better than anything McKenzie and Allen had in their first two years on the job, a pair of 4-12 finishes. But with the brutal schedule -- the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL -- it’s no sure thing it will translate into more wins. But camp has been mellow and full of learning experiences, so that’s a victory, right?
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Matt Schaub is primed for a comeback-player-of-the-year-type season. He is still a guy who has passed for more than 4,000 yards three times in his career, and a change of scenery from Houston could be the re-energizing boost the Raiders’ new quarterback needs. His physical gifts and experience give Oakland a seasoned QB similar to Carson Palmer but with more mobility and better talent around him. The running game, being a legitimate threat with Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, will open up Schaub’s bread-and-butter play-action passing game, which he’s already flashed in camp.
2. The Raiders’ pass rush has the looks of something special. Granted, they’ve only been going up against their own rebuilt offensive line, and they are not tackling to the ground, but the defense has shown flashes of being a dominant unit. A year ago, Oakland had 38 sacks as a team; the new trio of Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith combined for 21 sacks. Throw in Mack, who had 10.5 sacks as a college senior at Buffalo, and defensive coordinator Jason “The Mad Scientist” Tarver has been doing some major experimenting in camp.
3. Sebastian Janikowski, who struggled through a nine-miss season on field goal attempts last year with a new holder in Marquette King, has gotten much more comfortable with King. There is a reason Janikowski came out some two months early to work with him. Janikowski’s leg is as powerful as ever, which he’s demonstrated in camp, and he appears to be a tad slimmer. Janikowski’s camp work and confidence in King should give the Raiders confidence in him. And with an offense still finding itself, a more comfortable SeaBass coming out of camp is a good thing.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. D.J. Hayden and his surgically repaired right foot being a fixture on the sideline has cost the second-year cornerback valuable practice time. Granted, Chimdi Chekwa has stepped in admirably, but Hayden’s stress fracture tests the depth of the Raiders’ cornerbacks, and it has shown in camp. Allen said he expects to see Hayden on the field before the end of the preseason, but would anyone be shocked if Hayden actually started the regular season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which would mean he is lost for at least six games?
2. The Raiders’ receiving corps is seemingly made up by a gaggle of No. 2 and No. 3 receivers on any other team. Schaub is used to having a prototypical No. 1 pass-catcher in the mold of Andre Johnson. There is no Andre Johnson on this team, rather, there is Andre Holmes, who has exceeded expectations as a big and physical receiver but still needs experience. Other than Denarius Moore, whose knack for shining and then disappearing in regular-season games has reared its head in camp, the Raiders’ receivers all seem like the same guy.
3. Schaub's confidence level has been downplayed all camp, and early on he was extremely sharp. Then came a blip when he threw four interceptions in three practices, getting picked off three times by free safety Charles Woodson and once by linebacker Miles Burris. Schaub’s accuracy issues against his own team are sure to surface against opponents, no? And when they do, how will he handle the hardship? In camp, he responded with some of his best throws of the preseason. And therein lies the key for a QB who insists he never lost his mojo.
Rookie second-string quarterback Derek Carr may have a stronger arm than Schaub, but Carr, who played his last three years at Fresno State in the shotgun in a spread offense, seems to hold onto the ball in the pocket too long while patting the ball a la Dan Pastorini looking for an open receiver. NFL pass-rushers come much quicker than your run-of-the-mill Mountain West Conference sack master.
Mack simply has a nose for the ball. The No. 5 overall draft pick has a high motor and is all over the field. In one play, he looks like a Von Miller clone. In the next, he is the second coming of Clay Matthews. It will be fun to see what Mack does when the tackling is live and to the ground.
No surprise here, but Jones-Drew looks more effective running between the tackles than McFadden, who is more dangerous in space.
Two-time Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece has dropped 17 pounds but gained an added dimension as a pass-catcher. He has been going out for passes down the sidelines and coming down with jump balls. Remember, he was a receiver in college at Washington.
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