AFC West: Pat Sims

NAPA, Calif. -- Late last season, Pat Sims sat at his stall in the Oakland Raiders' locker room and seemed resigned that his time with the team was coming to an end.

He was about to play the final game under his one-year deal and while the defensive tackle would play in a career-high 16 games, starting all of them, the workload wore on him, as did a slow start due to injury.

Still, there was that electric game at San Diego on Dec. 22 in which he had 13 tackles, eight solo, with a sack.

[+] EnlargePat Sims
AP Photo/Jim MonePat Sims is excited about the outlook for the upcoming season.
“Hey, man, you can’t predict the future,” Sims said with a laugh recently. “We started something last year. I just wanted to finish it. We brought some new people in here and they wanted me to be a part of it so I said, ‘Why not come back and finish it?’”

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Sims signed a one-year, $1.45 million contract to return. And he has been a steady presence on the interior, whether at a tackle or on the nose.

“I think it was important to be able to get Pat Sims back," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. "I thought at times he played really well last year and there were some games that he was dominant in the games.

"I've seen a different demeanor out of Pat Sims this year, maybe a little bit different focus. He’s come in and really competed hard and he’s playing well for us right now, so we’re excited about Pat Sims."

Part of that may be because while Sims enjoyed playing in a career-high number of snaps and games, it was also uncharted territory for him. Yes, he would get gassed. The 693 plays were nearly 150 more than in any of Sims’ previous five seasons.

Now? The Raiders have fortified the defense with the likes of Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith up front while drafting Justin “Jelly” Ellis to play down low -- “Jelly’s big, quick, strong, kind of like me, know what I’m saying?” Sims said. “Man, he’s going to be a great player ... he ain’t quicker than me, though.” -- and linebacker Khalil Mack -- “Best rookie in the draft,” Sims said. “Period.” -- to help clean things up.

“It was good, but now I don’t have to take all those snaps,” Sims said. “We’ve got depth this year, something we didn’t have last year. Some packages last year, we only had a first team and we didn’t have anybody to come in after us. It’s great to have somebody to come in and give you a breather here and there.”

In Tuck and Woodley, the Raiders imported two guys with Super Bowl rings.

“It’s a hell of a lot of fun,” Sims said, “just the opportunity to play with these guys, knowing what they’ve accomplished and are trying to accomplish again. It’s great.”

Plus, there’s versatility with the likes of C.J. Wilson and Stacy McGee, both of whom can also play tackle or end.

And as any defensive player worth his salt would tell you, Sims is of the mind that the play of the defense will tell the team’s tale.

“I don’t give a care how good the offense is or how bad the offense is, defense is always going to be the identity,” he said. “That’s our goal. ... If we’ve got the best defense, it really doesn’t matter what kind of offense you have.

“Well, it does but, hey, Baltimore did it.”
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Pat Sims started a combined nine games in his previous three NFL seasons. So you would imagine being a starter for an entire season for the Oakland Raiders would tax the defensive tackle down the stretch.

Except ...

Sims, who was dinged up in training camp, is playing his best football of the season of late. He had a career-high 15 tackles in the Raiders' 26-13 loss at the San Diego Chargers last weekend and has a sack in each of his past two games.
"As far as the D-tackle, we don't always have the major stats here and there, but at the same time I go out there and do my job every week," Sims said Thursday. "The stats have picked up but I'm still playing with the same effort."

Well ...

"I think he's done a good job of focusing in, and I hope he does it this week and continues," said defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "He's becoming a little bit more of the wrecking ball that we thought he could be and really rolling off and using his hands and being consistent with his hands and knocking people back.

"He's so big and strong that when he just sets his mind and does that call right, he can be really good. So again, I'm expecting that out of him this week, and I think he'll play well. And that's good for him in the future."

Surely, Tarver has to wonder why Sims was not as dominant throughout the course of the entire season, right?

"Sure, but that's why you coach and you play," Tarver said. "That's why players need coaches and coaches need players. We've just got to keep working our process and getting better at all times. He's gotten better, so that's good."

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Sims is one of seven starters on defense who are entering their final game under contract with the Raiders. And with continuity being a point of emphasis for this coaching staff, it wants to retain players it sees as keepers.

Sims, who spent his first five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and never had more than five tackles in any of his previous 74 games, was not sure what the future might hold for him, though.

Then would the prospect of returning to Oakland intrigue him?

"I wouldn't mind," he said, "but at the same time it's not left up to me. I can't do anything about that."

Then what about ending this season on a good note by upsetting the Denver Broncos on Sunday?

"It can set a tone for the offseason but at the same time we're losing a lot of players after this year," he said. "If you had more players coming back it would probably mean something, but for the players who are coming back it could mean a lot to them.

"Whoever they bring in, they're just going to have to step up to the plate."

Kind of like how Sims has brought it the past few weeks.

Midseason Report: Oakland Raiders

November, 6, 2013
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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- You knew this was going to be a rebuilding year for the Oakland Raiders and, before Sunday's embarrassing 49-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland was playing above expectations. Indeed, after a 4-12 season last year, the Raiders had a chance to win their fourth game at this year's midway points.

Alas, the Eagles and Nick Foles, who threw a record-tying seven touchdowns, had different plans and it makes you wonder if these are indeed the same old Raiders who have not been to the playoffs since 2002, let alone had a winning season since that Super Bowl campaign. The difference, at least on the surface, is this team has been in every game save two -- at Denver and against the Eagles.

But the NFL is a results-oriented business and at the midway point, the Raiders sit at 3-5.

 
Terrelle Pryor and Andrew LuckUSA TODAY SportsTerrelle Pryor will lead a rebuilding team while Andrew Luck and the Colts will try to build on last season's success.
The Indianapolis Colts surprised the league by finishing with an 11-5 record and making the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Oakland Raiders struggled with a 4-12 record. They're expected to have problems again this season as the rebuilding project continues for the Raiders. The teams open the season facing each other on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mike Wells: So much was made about who the Raiders would start at quarterback earlier this week. It looks like it’ll be Terrelle Pryor. Does he give Oakland the best chance to win, and if so, what makes him so dangerous as a quarterback?

Paul Gutierrez: It appears as though it will be TP2 Time for the Raiders in the opener. And really, it should be. Now, that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but with this team, at this moment, Pryor does at least represent some semblance of hope, what with his skill set. His ability to run should keep the Colts' front seven honest and they won’t be able to simply pin their ears back and rush, like they could Matt Flynn. I believe Flynn is probably a better NFL quarterback at this stage, but with the deficiencies around Oakland’s pocket -- leaky line, inconsistent receivers, injury-prone running back -- Pryor gives the Raiders a better chance. And being that this is a quarterback-driven league, how has Luck dealt with stepping into those huge shoes left by Peyton Manning, and how can Luck avoid the sophomore jinx?

Wells: I’m sure you probably watched Luck one or two times out there in the Bay Area while he was at Stanford, so you know his work ethic should never be questioned, and his demeanor doesn’t allow him to get caught up with the hype. The offensive weapons the Colts put around Luck will make it difficult for him to struggle. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Oakland’s favorite former receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at receiver; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end to go with the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard at running back. So the words “sophomore slump” and “Andrew Luck” shouldn’t be on anybody’s mind. Of course that’s if the offensive line does its job and blocks. A lot is being made of Pryor’s ability to be creative with his feet, but what about Darren McFadden -- isn’t he the real threat with running the ball, especially with the Colts being near the bottom of the league in rush defense last season?

Gutierrez: No doubt, especially in a perfect world for the Raiders' offense. If all is working right, and opposing defenses have to at least respect the quarterback’s ability to take off, they can’t key on the quarterback. And that sets up the play-action pass. But for the Raiders to have any success offensively this season, it all starts and ends with a guy who has yet to play more than 13 games in a season.

Yeah, Run DMC had been more Limp DMC of late, but when he’s right, he’s nice. Two years ago, he was playing like a league MVP candidate. Then came the Lisfranc injury that ended his campaign after just six-plus games. And last year, in perhaps the greatest failing of the Raiders’ new regime’s plans, they changed the offense on McFadden from a power scheme to the zone-blocking philosophy. McFadden’s average yards per carry went from a career-high 5.4 yards to 3.3 yards. McFadden is also entering a contract year so yeah, he has something to prove as the Raiders return to the power running game. Speaking of something to prove, you mentioned him earlier: The artist formerly known as DHB around these parts left a lot to be desired after four nondescript seasons in Oakland. Hey, it wasn’t his fault he was drafted so high. How has he adapted to a change of scenery, and how strong is his desire to prove something to the Raiders after they cut him this spring?

Wells: I thought Heyward-Bey would come to Indy with a chip on his shoulder because, well, he did play for the Raiders, where more bad than good comes out of that organization. But Heyward-Bey has only good things to say about the Raiders. He blames himself for a lot of his struggles during his four years in Oakland. He also knows he needs to produce to get rid of that “bust” label. As you know, Heyward-Bey has an incredible work ethic.

The biggest difference here is that he now has a mentor. Wayne is the perfect veteran to guide him. The future Hall of Famer's professional demeanor is exactly what Heyward-Bey needs. The other thing is, Heyward-Bey doesn’t have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. Wayne isn’t slowing down any time soon, and the Colts have so many other offensive weapons, as I mentioned earlier, that Heyward-Bey can just let the game come to him. Fans will likely see a number of those weapons because the Raiders don’t have much of a defense. Will nine new starters help them from giving up almost 28 points a game again this season?

Gutierrez: That’s the plan. At least, that’s the hope for the Raiders. Yeah, they have nine new starters on defense, with the only two returning starters being defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is moving from the left side to the more pass rush-specific right side, and strong safety Tyvon Branch, who endured an injury-plagued season for the first time in his career. Of course, a million times of course, the Raiders kept their defense vanilla in the preseason ... and not just for what coach Dennis Allen would term "competitive reasons." In fact, Sunday will be only the first time the Raiders will field their entire starting defense at the same time. Injuries wreaked havoc in exhibition games.

There was a glimmer of hope, though, with the run-stuffing play of defensive tackle Pat Sims in the exhibition finale. And if Nick Roach, who will wear the green dot on his helmet, can rally the defense from his middle linebacker position, the Raiders' defense should be better this season. Emphasis on "could." Can the Raiders -- with virtually an entire new defense and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who schemed daily against Luck at Stanford -- be a detriment to the Colts? Or are they simply of the mindset that they have to worry only about themselves?

Wells: The only way the Raiders will be able to rattle Luck is if the offensive line doesn’t do its job and allows its quarterback to take a pounding all game long. And even then, that may not be enough to beat the Colts. Let’s not forget, Luck was sacked 41 times and hit more than 100 times last season. That didn’t stop him from setting a rookie record for passing yards, attempts and 300-yard games. So I don’t think the Raiders will be to do much against Luck & Co. on Sunday afternoon.

The Oakland Raiders have been manhandled at the line of scrimmage in the preseason.

Oakland’s first-team offense and defense were not good in the preseason as they were both dominated It started with being hammered up front.

However, Thursday night at Seattle, Oakland did have a couple of bright spots on both sides of the ball that perhaps can offer some relief and hope in the regular season.

Free-agent pickup Pat Sims played well at defensive tackle. He was disruptive, although the Seattle second team was on the field most of the time the Oakland first unit was playing. Sims gave a push and he helped the run defense.

Scouts love Sims, who was signed from Cincinnati. The question about him is whether he can stay healthy (he was oft injured as a Bengal and he was injured most of this training camp) and how he’d react to be being a full-time player after being a part-time player. Still, Sims has ability and he will help.

At offensive tackle, rookie Menelik Watson played left tackle for the first time in his life. The second-round pick did pretty well. I’d bet he will get the chance to play left tackle in the regular season with Jared Veldheer out for the next few months with a triceps injury.

Playing full-time in the regular season could be a different story for Watson. But he is talented and he will get better, so he has a chance to help.

Evening AFC West notes

August, 21, 2013
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Oakland rookie running back Latavius Murray had minor ankle surgery Tuesday. His timetable to return is unclear.
  • San Diego gave quarterback Philip Rivers his first rest day of camp Wednesday. Safety Brandon Taylor and running back Danny Woodhead are on pace to play Saturday at Arizona for the first time this preseason.
  • Oakland defensive tackle Vance Walker will play against Chicago on Friday. Defensive tackle Pat Sims and offensive tackle Menelik Watson, who like Walker returned to work this week, won’t play in the game. Safety Tyvon Branch has been out this week with a ribs injury and he likely won’t play Friday.
  • Oakland coach Dennis Allen said Alex Barron is expected to start. Barron, for now, is Oakland’s left tackle with Jared Veldheer out for about three months with a triceps injury. Barron did not play well last week in New Orleans.
  • Free-agent offensive lineman Jason Spitz reportedly visited the Raiders this week. If signed, it’d be for depth purposes.
Chase Thomas was considered a top undrafted free agent when he signed with the New Orleans Saints.

However, Thomas didn’t catch on with the Saints and was an early cut. Now, he will get another NFL chance in a familiar spot. The Oakland Raiders have claimed the Stanford product off waivers.

Thomas will be reunited with Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who coached Thomas in 2011 at Stanford.

The Raiders are giving Thomas a chance partly because they have injuries at the position. I think he could be a potential practice squad player. Oakland waived injured offensive lineman John Wetzel to make room for Thomas.

Meanwhile, Oakland rookie tackle Menelik Watson may practice Wednesday. He has been out virtually all of training camp with a calf injury. The second-round pick could eventually be in the mix at left tackle. Right tackle Khalif Barnes is also a possibility at left tackle with Watson playing right tackle. The Raiders are trying to figure out a solution with standout left tackle Jared Veldheer out for about three months with a triceps injury.

The Raiders believe defensive end Lamarr Houston will play against Chicago on Friday. Defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker both returned to practice this week and are question marks to play.

In other AFC West notes:

The Chiefs claimed guard Ricky Henry off waivers from New Orleans.

Houston defensive end Antonio Smith has been suspended for the Week 1 “Monday Night Football” game at San Diego.

Miami cut cornerback Richard Marshall. He should be popular on the open market. San Diego is one of the teams in the league that are thin at cornerback. Plus, new San Diego coach Mike McCoy was in Carolina with Marshall. Thus, there could potentially be interest.

 

 
Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston checks in at No. 87 and San Diego pass-rusher Dwight Freeney comes in at No. 90 on ESPN.com’s top 100 defensive players list.

These are two players at different ends of their careers. Houston is establishing himself as one of the better young pass-rushers and Freeney, in his first season in San Diego, is hoping to show his patented pass-rush burst for another year or two.

In other AFC West notes:

U-T San Diego reports Chargers rookie linebacker Manti Te'o is back in a walking boot. Te'o, who was hurt Aug. 8 against Seattle, reportedly was out of the boot Monday. He was supposed to be out for a week. Now, it looks like he will have a difficult time playing Saturday at Arizona. That is a blow since Te’o is set to start in the regular season and he needs the preseason work.

Oakland safety Charles Woodson stuck up for former teammate Aaron Rodgers. Former Green Bay receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver have been critical of Rodgers recently. Woodson said Rodgers was the catalyst of the Packers.

Oakland’s starting defensive line practiced together Tuesday for the first time this camp after defensive tackle Pat Sims returned after missing extensive time and fellow defensive tackle Vance Walker returned to practice Monday.

Oakland has signed tackle Tony Hills. He was cut by Buffalo on Sunday. The Raiders need bodies at the position. Still, it is unlikely Hills can be a factor in the regular season. The Raiders waived injured kicker Eddy Carmona. With Sebastian Janikowski present, Carmona was always on borrowed time in Oakland.

Former Oakland business leader Amy Trask has joined CBSSports.com. She left the Raiders in May.

Key Raiders suffer setbacks

August, 7, 2013
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A promising day of practice turned into a frustrating one for the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday.

The team started practice with rookie tackle Menelik Watson and defensive tackle Pat Sims, free-agent pickup. But both players had to leave practice early. Watson told the Oakland Tribune he is dealing with a calf injury. He hopes to return next week. Both Watson and Sims had been out of practice since training camp began July 26.

This is definitely a setback. Both players were expected to play a lot this season. It is particularly troublesome for Watson. The second-round pick from Florida State has a limited football background. But he has immense ability and needs to get as much camp work as possible. If he misses an extend period again, he will likely not be a factor when the regular season starts Sept. 8.

Also, receiver Jacoby Ford left the field early Wednesday. He has been dealing with leg injuries since 2011.

Not all was bad for Oakland on Wednesday, though. Cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter returned to practice as did rookie running back Latavius Murray.

Nagging injuries hit Raiders

July, 30, 2013
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NAPA, Calif. – The Oakland Raiders haven’t suffered any colossal training-camp injuries, but nagging bumps and bruises are starting to pile up.

The rookie class was affected Tuesday. Running back Latavius Murray, a sixth-round pick, didn’t practice; defensive lineman Stacy McGee and receiver Conner Vernon were injured during the session. Oakland coach Dennis Allen hasn’t been disclosing injuries, but he indicated that none of those suffered by the rookies seem to be overly serious.

Still, Allen did express worry that so many Raiders are injured. Fourteen are currently not practicing -- making Wednesday's day off from drills particularly welcome.

Oakland receiver/returner Jacoby Ford, hurt over the weekend, is among those sidelined; Allen said he doesn’t expect Ford to be out long. He has played sparingly in the past year-and-a-half. Offensive lineman Menelik Watson and defensive tackle Pat Sims are still out. Rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden has still not been cleared for contact, though Allen has indicated that he could be shortly.

Receiver Andre Holmes has been a standout in recent days, showcasing his size and skills. Holmes, entering his second season, is facing a four-game NFL suspension for use of a banned substance. He is a long shot to make the team, but if he continues to shine, he could force some tough decisions.

In other AFC West notes:

Kansas City guard Jeff Allen returned to practice Tuesday after missing two days with a shoulder injury. Defensive backs Eric Berry and Dunta Robinson are getting close to coming back from hamstring injuries.

Linebacker Joe Mays said he chose Houston over Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego. Denver cut him last week. All three of the other AFC West teams have varying needs at linebacker.

Quote of the day: Kansas City coach Andy Reid on the effort of 350-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe: “You’ve got D-Poe, just a big fella, and he’s chasing the ball down the field 50 yards. That’s impressive stuff.”

I expect Poe, the No. 11 overall draft choice in 2012, to make big strides this season. The new regime loves him.

Catching up on the day

July, 26, 2013
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Note: Sadly, I lost my mother today. Thus, I have not been able to update the blog as quickly as I wish. Please bear with me during this time. Below are some thoughts on some of the bigger news that has developed Friday:

Thank you: Overwhelmed by all the supportive tweets and messages to my mailbag.

The No. 1 overall pick in the draft is under contract. Right tackle Eric Fisher signed in time for Friday’s first full-team practice in Kansas City. He is working with the first team in practice. There was little doubt Fisher would sign. It was just a process. Fisher was the last AFC West draft pick to sign.

Oakland first-round pick, cornerback D.J. Hayden, practiced Friday. He has not been cleared for contact, but it is progress. Hayden had life-threatening heart surgery last November after he took a hit in practice. He hasn’t played since. Hayden, the No. 1 overall pick in the April draft, had to have his offseason cut short after he had stomach surgery to repair scar tissue from the surgery. As I have maintained, the key for Hayden is not to get on the field, but to show he can stay on it.

Oakland second-round pick, offensive tackle Menelik Watson, and defensive tackle Pat Sims didn’t practice. The Raiders didn’t give any details on their injuries or how long they will be out. Both are expected to be contributors this season.

According to the The Contra Costa Times, the Raiders have worked out veteran offensive lineman Andre Gurode, who hasn’t played in the NFL since 2011. Oakland is looking for some veteran depth on the offensive line.

Kansas City star receiver Dwayne Bowe is working on the side, but he is not practicing Friday. The Chiefs have put Bowe on the non football-injury list. He has a virus. The team expects him back soon.

Oakland receiver/returner Josh Cribbs is practicing. He had an offseason knee injury.

Oft-injured San Diego running back Ryan Mathews is still confident he can make a large impact in the league.

The Chiefs cut receiver Mardy Gilyard.

The Cardinals cut pass-rusher O’Brien Schofield. He has some burst and ability. The Raiders, Broncos and Chargers could all use some help there.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple-tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney ...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run-blocker than pass-blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing the scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
Our AFC West positional rankings series continues with a look at a young group of defensive linemen:

1. Corey Liuget, San Diego: This player has a chance to be a superstar.

2. Lamarr Houston, Oakland: A lot will be expected of this talented player on a line in transition.

3. Derek Wolfe, Denver: The Broncos are expecting huge things from this second-year player.

4. Kendall Reyes, San Diego: The same thing goes for Reyes in San Diego. He has great potential.

5. Terrance Knighton, Denver: Jack Del Rio is reunited with this run stuffer. Terrific free-agent addition.

6. Dontari Poe, Kansas City: I wouldn’t be shocked if this player makes a huge jump in Year 2.

7. Sylvester Williams, Denver: The first-round pick has huge potential. He is a good fit for this defense.

8. Tyson Jackson, Kansas City: Former No. 3 overall pick will never be great, but he has value.

9. Mike DeVito, Kansas City: The Chiefs are thrilled about his free-agent pickup. He can play.

10. Vance Walker, Oakland: Free-agent addition was a good rotational player in Atlanta. Gets chance for a bigger role.

11. Pat Sims, Oakland: This could be a very good addition if he can stay healthy.

12. Kevin Vickerson, Denver: Nothing fancy, but Vickerson is a solid part of a good defense.

13. Robert Ayers, Denver: The Broncos need this former first-round pick to contribute with Elvis Dumervil gone.

14. Cam Thomas, San Diego: The Chargers expect a lot from this promising player.

15. Christo Bilukidi, Oakland: I have a feeling he is going to develop quickly.

16. Andre Carter, Oakland: Greatest value may be as a leader, which this young team needs.

17. Jason Hunter, Oakland: Try-hard player could get a lot of playing time.

18. Jack Crawford, Oakland: Second-year player will have a chance to show his value.

Raiders looking for leaders

June, 3, 2013
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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Some thoughts from the Raiders’ OTA session Monday:

I found it interesting that Oakland coach Dennis Allen is putting a huge premium on finding leaders on both sides of the ball. Allen said identifying leaders is “huge” in the big picture.

Oakland is a young team that is going under a major rebuilding movement. The team lost several veteran players and Allen is looking for some players to emerge as leaders to guide the roster, Allen calls it “peer pressure.”

Allen sees free-agent pickup linebacker Nick Roach and veteran fullback Marcel Reece as potential leaders. I agree with Allen. The importance of leadership cannot be discounted. If this inexperienced roster is going to make some noise, it’s going to need strong on-field leadership.
  • Allen said cornerback D.J. Hayden, the team's first-round pick, is still on target to return for the start of training camp in late July. Hayden, who watched practice Monday, had surgery last week to remove scar tissue in his stomach, stemming from a life-threatening heart surgery last November. Allen called the situation “unchartered waters,” but he said the team remains confident Hayden should be fine once camp starts.
  • Receiver Jacoby Ford (hamstring) and defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi (ankle) did not practice Monday.
  • Cornerback Tracy Porter was noncommittal on whether or not he is going to give up No. 24 to Charles Woodson. Woodson wore the number in his previous Oakland stint. He is wearing No. 2 in practices, but the NFL doesn’t allow defensive back to wear single digits. Porter said say the number exchange is up for discussion. Translation: Woodson will have to pay up if he wants No. 24.
  • Allen was asked about punter Chris Kluwe not being able to attend a Washington D.C. event for gay rights. The event is being held next week during the team’s mandatory minicamp. Allen said Kluwe knows his focus has to be on making the roster. It was an expected answer from a coach and frankly, it’s the right answer. Players need to focus on the team during the season. Kluwe is a pro. He knows that.
  • As for Kluwe’s competition, Marquette King, Allen said consistency is the key for the strong-legged youngster. Kluwe is the favorite to win the job because of his experience.
  • Allen said the overall production of this week’s media-open session was much better than last week’s open session.
  • Allen expects free-agent picks ups Vance Walker and Pat Sims to improve the team’s run defense.
  • Allen said he wants to further the importance of special teams this year as he moves into his second season as the team’s head coach. Allen praised the experience and ability of new special teams coach, longtime NFL assistant Bobby April. Allen thinks improved depth at linebacker and in the secondary can help on special teams.
  • Allen categorized the tight end position as being “wide open” with every tight end on the roster having a legitimate chance at significant playing time. Allen said if an interesting veteran becomes available at some point, Oakland could show interest. On paper, it is one of the team’s weakest positions.
  • Allen expressed excitement about improvements in both the secondary and at linebacker. As he has all offseason, Allen praised this team for “loving football.” He really likes this group of players.
  • Tony Bergstrom, a third-round pick in 2011, was back working ahead of 2011 undrafted free agent Lucas Nix at left guard. Nix was working ahead of Bergstrom last week. The battle should continue all summer.
  • Undrafted free-agent receiver Conner Vernon continues to look good. He might have a shot to stick with the 53-man roster.

In other AFC West notes:
  • New San Diego pass-rusher Dwight Freeney isn't with the team in OTAs yet. Coach Mike McCoy said he expects Freeney in soon. The team is having a mandatory minicamp next week.
  • Denver running back Knowshon Moreno did some light work as he returned from a knee injury he suffered in the playoff loss to Baltimore.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each AFC West team thus far this offseason:

Denver: defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. The Broncos have made some big-ticket moves, including the signings of receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and guard Louis Vasquez. But landing Knighton should not be overlooked. He fills a big need. He is a massive hole-plugger who should make a good defense even better. He was a favorite of former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, now Denver’s defensive coordinator. Knighton will be used correctly and should instantly be comfortable in Denver’s system. A run-stuffer was one of Denver’s greatest needs after last season. The position is now a strength.

Kansas City: defensive end Mike DeVito. DeVito wasn’t a big name to the average fan, but he is a favorite of NFL scouts. He was expected to be a hot commodity in free agency and the Chiefs made an immediate, winning run at him. DeVito reunites with former Jets assistant coach Bob Sutton, now Kansas City’s defensive coordinator. DeVito is a strong run defender and a relentless player overall. He is versatile and can rotate with 2012 first-round pick Dontari Poe. This could make Poe, who played well at the end of last season, even better. Strong move.

Oakland: defensive tackle Pat Sims. The football people I’ve spoken with believe Sims has among the best upside of the players the Raiders have brought in this offseason -- affordable, young, fringe-starter types who will be asked to take the next step in Oakland. Sims has a chance to stand out. If he can stay healthy and prove he can handle the rigors of being a full-time starter -- he was mostly a rotational player in Cincinnati -- Sims has a chance to be among Oakland’s better players. He is highly skilled, and he can be disruptive.

San Diego: guard Chad Rinehart. Scouts really like this signing. Yes, the Chargers’ offensive line still has question marks and yes, seeing Vasquez go to Denver hurts. But if he can stay healthy, Rinehart has a chance to step in at guard and provide a strong, stable presence. Many scouts thought he was one of the best bargain players available in free agency. He has a chance to develop into a strong starter. He played for new San Diego offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris in Buffalo. D'Alessandris pushed for Rinehart, and there is probably good reason he did so.

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