Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Friday, May 8, 2009
Raiders' Heyward-Bey, Russell begin partnership


 
  Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
  Rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey practiced with the Raiders for the first time Friday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Oakland's Darrius Heyward-Bey and JaMarcus Russell -- two people whose NFL futures are directly tied to one another --- met for the first time Thursday night.

The two took the field Friday and Russell, the third-year quarterback, threw passes for the first time to Heyward-Bey, the team's surprise first round pick who must fight criticism that he was inconsistent in college.

"He's a cool guy," Russell said of his first impression of the speedy Heyward-Bey. "He's going to open a lot of eyes."

Russell better hope so.

This is a critical season for Russell. He must make strides in his second full season as a starter. Russell must become more consistent, efficient and a better field general, but also needs better production from his receivers. Oakland's leading wide receiver, Johnnie Lee Higgins, had 22 catches last season.

That's where Heyward-Bey, who was working with the starting unit Friday, comes in. Heyward-Bey became a national draft day story when he was chosen three spots ahead of top receiver prospect Michael Crabtree, who went three slots later to Bay Area rival San Francisco.

The book on Heyward-Bey is he may need some seasoning before he can be considered a top-flight NFL receiver. Oakland selected him with the No. 7 pick, about 15 spots higher than many expected.

There is no questioning Heyward-Bey's potential. He has off-the-charts speed and size. He has a chance to be very good. The big question in Oakland is if Heyward-Bey can develop quickly.

"We'll see if its year one or year two," Heyward-Bey said. "The thing is if I can stay healthy. If I stay healthy, I will produce."

The Raiders had to be happy with the first day with Heyward-Bey wearing the silver and black.

Not only was his blazing speed on display, but so were his hands. Russell said Heyward-Bey was "sure handed."

His hands were a concern for teams leading up to the draft, but he showed proper technique and hauled in several tough throws Friday morning.

Oakland coach Tom Cable's joy over Heyward-Bey was on full display after the morning session Friday. Cable almost had an I-told-you-so attitude regarding his new player, who he calls a "brilliant young man." Cable said Heyward-Bey will "keep proving" his reputation for having poor hands "isn't true."

"He's going to be a really fine player," said Cable, who admitted he tiring of having to justify the selection.

Heyward-Bey said he understands the criticism but is undeterred. He said he is determined to show that Oakland made a "great pick."

Heyward-Bey said he feels no extra pressure from being picked higher than Crabtree. He knows there will be weekly comparisons between the two, beginning when the Raiders and 49ers meet in the preseason.

"We're not like Kobe and LeBron yet, comparing our stats," Heyward-Bey said with a chuckle. "All I'm worried about is learning this playbook and making this team."

Heyward-Bey said he learned a lesson during the morning session Friday while being covered by Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha said Heyward-Bey's eyes led him to the ball and allowed him to break up the pass. The cornerback said he plans to talk to Heyward-Bey about the nuances of not letting a cornerback know the ball is coming his way.

"I knew I wasn't in college anymore," Heyward-Bey said of the play.

Neither is Russell, who had an uneven first practice. Cable said Russell's play Friday ranged from "OK to very good."

Earlier this offseason, Cable said he wants to see Russell take more of a leadership role. Friday, Cable reiterated it. He said that Russell is making strides as a leader but he "isn't there yet."

Russell needs to make big strides this season and Heyward-Bey was drafted to help him get better. There is no doubt they are in this together.

"We have to keep working," Heyward-Bey said. "We have to make a connection."

Update: Heyward-Bey lived up to his reputation for having bad hands on Saturday. He dropped three straight passes. Clearly, he does have improvements to make in that area.