NFL Nation: Johnnie Lee Higgins
Surprise move: It's not a huge surprise that nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson was released, considering how deep the Eagles were at cornerback after their frenzied first week of free agency. But I do think people are surprised that they couldn't get anything for him in a trade before releasing him. It seems no team wanted to compensate the Eagles and also assume Hanson's contract, which had $7.6 million left over the next three years. He was an extremely effective nickel corner last year and surely will end up on someone's roster (Cleveland? Arizona? St. Louis? The Giants?) before long.
It was a bit of a surprise to see the Eagles cut defensive tackles Anthony Hargrove and Derek Landri and keep Cedric Thornton, but ultimately I guess they believed Landri and Hargrove weren't big enough to play the position in Jim Washburn's scheme. Very small but very effective former CFL star Phillip Hunt made the team at defensive end, though. And cutting both Sinorice Moss and Johnnie Lee Higgins leaves the Eagles looking for help in the return game.
No-brainers: Keeping five safeties (Jarrad Page, Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Colt Anderson) and six linebackers (Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney, Moise Fokou, Akeem Jordan, Brian Rolle and Keenan Clayton) makes some sense because they have questions at those positions and will hold onto depth until they sort out roles. Tight end Donald Lee probably can help someone, but with all of the options the Eagles have at receiver, there isn't much room in the game plan for many two-tight end sets. Mike McGlynn started 14 games for the Eagles last year, but it was clear from the start of camp that there was no place for him on the new offensive line.
What's next: The Eagles are likely to poke around and look for help at linebacker and kick returner, but they're set at almost every position and extremely deep at most. If I'm their front office, I begin focusing my attention on whatever potential resolution there might be to the DeSean Jackson contract situation.
"Infuriating." It seemed as if the Cowboys put their entire offseason plan on hold for a day because Jerry Jones decided he wanted to try and get Nnamdi Asomugha. Then it seemed, for a fleeting second when the Jets dropped out of the running just before dinnertime, as if they might have actually gotten him. Then they found out that they didn't get him. Then they found out that he'd signed in the division, with the Eagles. That's a bad day, folks. And the re-signing of Marcus Spears didn't seem like it was enough to make anybody any happier. The Cowboys still need two starting safeties and another starting defensive end, and there remain several good options on the market at both spots. So now that Asomugha is elsewhere, they can re-focus on filling needs and smoothing over the surely hurt feelings of the cornerbacks on their roster.
New York Giants?
"Punterrific!" OK, no, that's not a word. But while the Giants were busy again, the only thing that really happened for them Friday was that they agreed to terms on a new deal with former Jets punter Steve Weatherford. He will surely replace the embattled Matt Dodge to the delight of Giants fans who refuse to forgive Dodge for that whole DeSean Jackson thing. Brandon Jacobs agreed to restructure his deal to help them re-sign Ahmad Bradshaw, but Bradshaw remains unsigned, along with Steve Smith and Kevin Boss. Plaxico Burress stopped by to visit Tom Coughlin, but then he went on to Pittsburgh and I still wonder if he's just using the Giants for leverage. Oh, and Osi Umenyiora is officially holding out, so that's fun. Any or all of these sticky situations could resolve themselves in the next day or so, but in the meantime, the best thing that happened for the Giants on Friday was the punterrific addition of Weatherford, which will have to do.
"Awesome." They sneaked in at the last minute and signed the best free agent on the market. They did it right when the Cowboys thought they were about to get him. A defense that was their weak spot last season now boasts a three-man cornerback rotation of Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They also formally announced the addition of Jason Babin to the defensive line and a couple of under-the-radar moves in receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins and tight end Donald Lee. Eventually, they got around to announcing the signing of Vince Young to a one-year deal to serve as Michael Vick's backup. The Phillies were so inspired that they made their own big trade, and it was party time in Philadelphia. If they Eagles can beef up a bit at linebacker and find a backup running back, they'll be just about all set. They'll just need to find a way to make Jackson happy.
"Quiet." Washington was the busiest team in the division all week until Friday, when they didn't make a move of major consequence. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan talked about what he sees as the looming quarterback competition between John Beck and Rex Grossman, which kind of reminded everybody that all the other moves the Redskins have been making could have a hard time helping too much in 2011. Washington still needs a right tackle, and I could see them making a move for Braylon Edwards before that situation resolves itself. But they'd been busy and effective all week, and there was nothing wrong with a quiet day for them.
My day? Well, I was right there with the rest of you, wondering how the Nnamdi thing would shake out and shocked when it took the final turn it took. I was watching Adam Schefter on "SportsCenter" when he got the news on his BlackBerry and broke it on the set, which was humorous. My day isn't over, either, as I have one more Eagles-related item to write before I can think about the pillow. But as always, I have enjoyed the interactions on Twitter and the work I do to try and keep you informed and entertained. I hope you're enjoying it too.
How was your day?
The defense certainly had its moments, but the story of the game (from my vantage point) is that Tony Romo was sacked three times and the running game was non-existent. Other than that, it was a wonderful night of football. The Cowboys have nine days before playing a preseason game in San Diego. Maybe we'll get a better feel for where this team is at that point. But in the interest of producing a blog entry before most of you arrive at work, here are a few observations from Thursday's contest:
- The Cowboys were 0-for-4 in red zone efficiency, including a quick trip inside the 20 before Romo was sacked for a 9-yard loss. Dallas gave up six sacks in the game, three on Romo. The most disturbing to me was seeing Raiders defensive end Matt Shaughnessy beat Doug Free on a speed rush and then drag down Romo with one arm. Free was with Shaughnessy the whole time on the play, but he never delivered a solid punch. Shaughnessy's a nice second-year player out of Wisconsin, but he's not Trent Cole, Justin Tuck and Brian Orakpo. Free needs to clean things up before he meets any of those players. At least two of the three sacks on Romo were coverage sacks. He needs to do a better job of unloading the ball in those situations.
- Linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking were both excellent in coverage in the first quarter. James was throwing his body all over the place and Brooking was superb in not letting anyone get separation from him. Brooking still moves really well. I hope Sean Lee is watching Brooking's every move right now. The rookie needs to get past this quadriceps injury and return to the practice field. Otherwise, he's not going to have a chance to earn time in sub packages. Bobby Carpenter was replacing Brooking in the nickel last season, but right now I wouldn't replace him with anyone.
- Raiders safety Tyvon Branch was a mismatch for Jason Witten. The Pro Bowl tight end got plenty of separation and Romo hit him in stride for a big play on the first drive.
- Miles Austin made a beautiful adjustment to a ball thrown slightly behind him in the first quarter for a 24-yard catch. Austin brought a lot of energy to the field Thursday and ran some excellent routes. On the twisting grab, he beat cornerback Chris Johnson. The Raiders are vulnerable on that side of the field.
- Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston had one of the sacks on Romo. He was able to sneak in the backside and crunch the quarterback. Romo didn't feel the pressure coming on the play. He just seemed content to stay in the pocket, and that wasn't helping matters. Of course, everyone in the stadium gasped when he took off running up the middle of the field on one play.
- It was a good night for kicker David Buehler. He nailed a 42-yard field goal and then connected on two short ones. He also recorded three touchbacks. The 42-yarder was a good sign because that's a distance that plagued the team during a miserable stretch in '09. Buehler has all the confidence in the world. If he'll trust his leg, the distance will be there.
- Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick might be the best tackler of all the defensive backs. He does a really nice job of wrapping up and you don't see guys bounce off him. Scandrick decked wide receiver Louis Murphy early in the game. Then he absorbed a blow from James. The Cowboys were flying to the ball early.
- The running game was awful, but I did see Marion Barber put a nice little move on cornerback Stanford Routt in the first quarter. He froze Routt with a little stutter-step. Barber stumbled after that and only gained 2 yards.
- Romo and Austin have tremendous chemistry on the slant. On a third-down play, Austin got Johnson on his hip and then made a nice grab across the middle. Even when cornerbacks see it coming, they have an awful time getting inside position.
- All the goodwill that Kevin Ogletree earned in the offseason is being wasted early in the preseason. He's not making contested catches and it just seems like there's a lack of concentration. I still think he'll make the roster as the fifth receiver, but he hasn't seized some of these extra repetitions that were created by Dez Bryant's absence.
- Linebacker Victor Butler picked up a personal foul on a punt return. The officials will not have any tolerance this season for those blindside hits on defenseless players. There's just too much of a risk for head and neck injuries. Butler must have better awareness on that play.
- In the first quarter, cornerback Terence Newman closed quickly to break up a Jason Campbell throw in the flat. Newman was in position to make the interception, but he opted for knocking down the ball with one arm. It was a very instinctive play and it caught Campbell by surprise.
- Free-agent rookie Bryan McCann out of SMU had one really nice punt return (28 yards) late in the second quarter when he allowed Ogletree to set him up with a good block. McCann's also getting a lot of opportunities with the second-team defense. He was late on a Campbell throw to Murphy, but you can tell that he's not far away from making those plays. I get the sense that Wade Phillips is really pulling for McCann.
- I was eager to see how former third-round draft pick Robert Brewster performed at left tackle against the Raiders. And once again, he turned in a dud. Not even the optimistic Phillips will be able to praise Brewster after Thursday's showing. His feet are stuck in neutral and there's absolutely no anchor. When you watch him, he's getting pushed directly toward the quarterback. He's most susceptible to an outside speed rush right now, and that's not a good sign. Brewster will keep getting chances, but I thought that was a poor showing. Brewster was also penalized for grabbing a defensive end as he raced past.
- Butler does an excellent job getting pressure on the quarterback. He's so much more consistent this season in causing problems for the offensive line. And the other linebacker who caught my eye Thursday was Leon Williams. He's just a really tough player who brings some attitude to the field. Inside linebacker Jason Williams is still a work in progress, but he did race through and make a nice play against running back Michael Bush.
- Safety Mike Hamlin suffered a neck strain and a concussion in the third quarter, according to ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon. Some folks in the organization thought Hamlin might challenge Alan Ball for the starting role, but that hasn't happened so far in camp. The good news for the Cowboys is that Hamlin was the only player injured. That's a lot different situation than what took place against the Bengals.
- Roy Williams and Romo weren't on the same page in the first quarter. On one play, Romo rolled right and wanted Williams to come back to him. Williams sort of posted up the cornerback along the sideline and hoped for the best. There wasn't any rhythm to his routes against the Raiders. By the way, Bryant gave Williams and the rest of the receivers some new shoes.
- In one of the Cowboys' four trips inside the red zone, Jon Kitna rolled right and threw to Deon Anderson in the flat. It was a poorly conceived play on fourth-and-1. Linebacker Thomas Howard applied the pressure to Kitna.
- I thought safety Danny McCray did a really nice job hustling over to break up a deep ball to Johnnie Lee Higgins. McCray's been a camp phenom, and I'm eager to see if he can keep it up in Oxnard, Calif., next week. The Beast will be on the ground in Oxnard beginning Sunday evening.
- The Cowboys were 3-for-16 on third down. The lack of a running game put the Cowboys in third-and-long situations far too often. Losing in the preseason isn't a big issue, but this red zone issue is something that goes back to last season. The Cowboys need a touchdown from the first-team offense against the Chargers next Saturday.
- Guard Pat McQuistan simply doesn't play with any power. Every time I watch him, he's getting thrown toward the quarterback. It's about time to move on without him. The Cowboys have invested a lot of time in him, but I don't think he'll ever be a starter. And he doesn't seem like a reliable backup. On the other hand, I like the backup center, Phil Costa. The guy will stand his ground and he seems to have a little attitude. Give me that guy over McQuistan any day. I also liked the way rookie Sam Young played.
|AP Photo/Steve Cannon; Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE|
|The New York Jets landed Braylon Edwards in a deal last week; will the Bills ship Terrell Owens out of Buffalo before the trade deadline?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Unlike trade deadlines in the other major sports, the NFL's closing date doesn't elicit an entertaining barrage of player movement.
Blockbuster deadline deals are rare, but they do happen. Eric Dickerson, Hershel Walker and Jerry Rice were traded at the deadline. Lesser stars such as Roy Williams, Chris Chambers and Keenan McCardell were bartered, too.
This year's trade deadline is Tuesday.
The biggest name being bandied about lately is Terrell Owens. The Buffalo Bills haven't been able to figure out how to use the future Hall of Famer, who likely will be gone when his contract is up after the season.
With that in mind, here's a deadline preview for all four AFC East clubs.
|Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PRESSWIRE|
|Coach Tom Cable has spent the early part of camp focusing on teaching the basics.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
NAPA, Calif. -- In his first training camp as a head coach in the NFL, Tom Cable is breaking it down.
He is trying to end the Oakland Raiders' six-year slump by going back to basics.
"It's all about learning," Cable said. "That what we're trying to do here."
Cable, who went 4-8 on an interim basis last season after the tumultuous Lane Kiffin era ended, is methodically trying to improve his team. Here's how he started: Players reported on Tuesday. The team spent all day Wednesday in meetings before hitting the practice field on Thursday.
It wasn't exactly a strenuous football practice; the team went through two glorified walk-throughs on opening day. Cable ended plays shortly after the ball was snapped. The team won't start hitting until Monday.
The 2009 Oakland Raiders are starting with a classroom on the grass. Why not? The past six years have produced report cards with nothing but F's. The Raiders are a combined 24-72 since 2003. It is the worst six-year span by any team in NFL history.
Players, tired of Oakland literally being an NFL Black Hole, are behind Cable's slow instructional pace.
"We're really breaking it all down and starting over," linebacker Thomas Howard said. "It's good. We need it. This is all about learning and being instructed."
|AP Photo/Paul Sakuma|
|The Raiders clearly want JaMarcus Russell to develop into their long-term starter, but Jeff Garcia might be their best option to compete right now.|
1. Can JaMarcus Russell develop? Whether or not Oakland can end its six-season slump will likely depend on its third-year quarterback.
Cable said Thursday it's all about whether Russell can win. It has gotten to that point. If Russell fails to make strides this season, his job could be on the line. Considering that veteran Jeff Garcia is looking to take his job, Russell's progress is definitely the biggest issue in Oakland this season.
Russell, who admitted that he reported to training camp heavier than he wanted to, needs to become more consistent and the Raiders want to see him become more of a leader. If he doesn't improve, the Raiders may be in trouble in both 2009 and beyond.
2. Can the run defense improve? So much has been made of the Raiders' problems in the passing game, but the run defense has been a huge issue in recent seasons.
Oakland was 31st in the NFL against the rush last season, allowing 159.7 yards a game on the ground. Oakland was ranked 27th overall on defense last season.
That weakness set the tone for Oakland's defense. If a team can't stop the run, it can't win consistently. It's that simple. Teams that have trouble against the run get eaten alive and wear down.
Oakland has to find a way to improve in this area. The Raiders haven't changed their personnel much, so they have to get better play from their defensive tackle rotation. New defensive coordinator John Marshall, an NFL veteran, appears bent on teaching fundamentals and is very vocal in camp. He has a tall task ahead of him.
But they are both still learning and are not sure things. If they continue to develop, Russell will get the help from his receivers that he needs. The Raiders, of course, are also counting on rookies Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy. If two of these four players show they can be consistent weapons in 2009, Oakland's run-first offense has a chance to succeed.
|AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez|
|Darrius Heyward-Bey signed his rookie contract and was in camp on Thursday.|
Heyward-Bey's best move so far was to sign his rookie contract. He arrived at training camp Thursday after agreeing to a contract with more than $23 million in guarantees. That's big money for someone who is not considered to be a guaranteed NFL success.
But Heyward-Bey gave himself a chance to succeed by not missing much camp time. By all accounts, he is a talented, raw player who needs practice. He lost valuable time in the offseason due to a hamstring injury. For a player who was inconsistent and who had trouble holding on to the ball in college, the lost time was not ideal. Heyward-Bey is super fast and has big-time potential. But he needs work before he can help the receiver-
Newcomer to watch
I just get the feeling that Garcia's shadow is going to hover over Russell all season or until Garcia takes over. Garcia is honest and expresses his thoughts whenever he's asked. Garcia believes he gives the Raiders the best chance to win, but he'll support Russell while he is the starter.
That's just not the best atmosphere for a young quarterback who needs to make quick progress. Russell doesn't need to be feeling heat. He needs to feel relaxed as he tries to become a quality NFL player. Having Garcia hover may make that impossible. Before the end of the season, Garcia's presence on this team will become a major storyline. It appears inevitable.
Second-year running back Darren McFadden looks healthy and primed to live up to his rookie hype. McFadden can also help when lined up as a wide receiver. Expect McFadden to lead a strong running attack that also features Michael Bush and Justin Fargas ... Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly jumped offsides three times Thursday. Penalties have long been a problem in Oakland. It is clear the team needs to work on discipline this summer ... Look for former Cleveland starter Charlie Frye to be the Raiders' No. 3 quarterback ... Linebacker Ricky Brown has been working at outside and inside linebacker and the team thinks he may be ready to live up to his potential ... The Raiders are giving Mario Henderson a chance to be the starting left tackle. He has promise. If former Jacksonville starter Khalif Barnes doesn't beat out Henderson, Barnes could be moved to right tackle ... The Raiders expect to get a lot of production out of pass-rushers Greg Ellis and Trevor Scott. The Raiders think Ellis, signed this summer after Dallas cut him, can still be a factor and that Scott, a second-year defensive tackle, is ready for prime time. The presence of Ellis and Scott is a major reason the Raiders aren't sweating the puzzling holdout of defensive end Derrick Burgess ... Keep an eye out for tight end Zach Miller. He is getting better in all phases of the game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Training camp site: Englewood, Colo.
Campfires: A key to camp will be how well rookie running back Knowshon Moreno adjusts. The Broncos drafted him with the No. 12 overall pick because they wanted him to have a major role in the offense. Denver coach Josh McDaniels envisions Moreno as a three-down back. Even though Denver is deep at running back, Moreno wasn't drafted to be a complementary piece.
The Broncos' offense is changing and the Georgia product can be the centerpiece of the unit if he has a strong camp. Moreno was impressive in the offseason and Denver wants to see him lock down a starting job in camp.
The Broncos want to see second-round pick Alphonso Smith take command of the nickel cornerback job. The team sent its first-round pick in next year's draft to Seattle to acquire Smith with the No. 37 pick. He failed to solidify the nickel spot in the offseason, battling with second-year player Jack Williams for the job. Expect the playmaking Smith to pull away from Williams as camp marches on.
|Ron Chenoy/US Presswire|
|Knowshon Moreno could become the workhorse in Denver's offense if he has a good camp.|
Camp will be a downer if ... starting quarterback Kyle Orton doesn't make strides in McDaniels' system. McDaniels picked Orton to be his first quarterback in Denver after the Jay Cutler fiasco. McDaniels chose Orton over several other options because he thought the former Chicago quarterback could excel in his system.
Orton was named the starter over Chris Simms in June, partly to give him the most time in training camp with the first team. If Orton doesn't respond well to McDaniels' offense during camp and in the preseason, the Broncos will be quite nervous about their once-solid quarterback position heading into the season.
Camp will be a success if ... receiver Brandon Marshall doesn't miss any time due to a holdout and is recovered from a late March hip surgery. Marshall has asked to be traded. Yet, he recently said he planned to report to training camp on time -- he is due Monday because he is an injured player -- to avoid being fined.
If Marshall shows up with a good attitude and doesn't show any wear from the surgery -- as the team expects the case will be -- it will be a positive development after a rocky start to McDaniels' era.
Aged secondary: There is no doubt Denver improved its secondary this offseason. The unit, which featured seven different starting safeties in 2008, was revamped. Veteran Andre' Goodman will now start opposite left cornerback Champ Bailey, the lone holdover. Veterans Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill were brought in at safety.
This is a solid group. But it is an old group. Dawkins turns 36 in October. Bailey is 31. Goodman will turn 31 next month and Hill will turn 31 in November. It is the oldest secondary in the NFL since at least 2000. The unit may be improved, but it will be interesting to see how this group's legs hold up late in the season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Training camp site: River Falls, Wis.
Campfires: The Chiefs will be interested to see how their defensive line, which they have invested so much in, adjusts to the 3-4 alignment that the new regime has installed in Kansas City.
Former LSU stars Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are the centerpieces of the line. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Jackson was the No. 3 overall pick this year. Dorsey is a natural 4-3 tackle who will likely be tried at end. Jackson will play end. If Dorsey, who was so-so as a rookie, can make the transition to the 3-4, the Chiefs have a chance for an excellent line. Jackson may not be a dynamic pass-rusher, but he is an excellent run-stuffer and is expected to bring toughness to the line. Both of these former top picks have to show they are ready during camp to bring life to a defense that set an NFL
record for fewest sacks last season with 10.
Replacing the legendary Tony Gonzalez, traded to Atlanta in April for a second-round draft choice next year, will be a big part of training camp. Second-year player Brad Cottam may have an edge. He is a blocking specialist. Journeymen Tony Curtis and Sean Ryan should get a chance to show what they can do. Whoever wins the job likely won't be a major part of the passing offense. New coach Todd Haley was not a big proponent of the position as the offensive coordinator in Arizona last season.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Dwayne Bowe has had some problems with hanging on to the ball.|
Camp will be a downer if ... Matt Cassel flops. Cassel is the guy in Kansas City. That became evident when the Chiefs gave him a monster contract earlier this month. Cassel will be paid more than $40 million in guaranteed money in the next three years.
Cassel was a surprise star for New England last season after he took over for an injured Tom Brady in the first game. The Chiefs, led by new general manager Scott Pioli, who witnessed Cassel's success first hand as a New England executive, are hoping the quarterback can enjoy the same success this year. Still, Cassel has a lot fewer weapons than he had with New England, and he will be working behind a young and unsettled offensive line. If Cassel takes his lumps in camp and in the preseason, the Chiefs may have some buyer's remorse.
Camp will be a success if ... the team buys into Haley's approach. The Chiefs were shell-shocked as they transitioned to the tough Haley, who was groomed by Bill Parcells. The Chiefs were used to the easy-going ways of Herm Edwards. Haley is much more demanding and harsher than Edwards ever was.
Haley is a certified screamer and he has expressed this offseason that his team -- which won a total of six games over the past two seasons -- needs to be better in all phases of the game. He also directed a mass weight-loss program because he thought his team was too heavy and too soft. A coach like Haley can either light a fire under a team or alienate it. His first training camp could indicate which way it will go. If the team is behind Haley, the Chiefs' rebuilding period could be shorter than expected.
Hold onto the ball: Cassel's best weapon is receiver Dwayne Bowe. He is a talented player and has a chance to emerge as one of the best young receivers in the game and team with Cassel as a top pass-catch tandem. However, he needs to learn to catch the ball consistently.
Bowe needs to work on his hands during camp. He struggled with dropped ball some during the offseason. He has struggled holding onto the ball in the past. While Larry Johnson appears to have some NFL life left, Bowe is the Chiefs' top weapon. If he drops balls during the season, Cassel's job will be even more difficult. Camp has to be a time where Bowe finds his ball-catching groove.
Training camp site: Napa, Calif.
|AP Photo/Paul Sakuma|
|The Raiders are hoping first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey can shore up their receiving corps.|
Campfires: The Raiders have tried to upgrade an offensive line that has struggled in recent years, especially in pass protection. The team has added several pieces and the situation at tackle will be watched closely.
The team brought in talented and massive tackle Khalif Barnes as a free agent from Jacksonville to compete on the left side. However, there were indications after the minicamp season that young Mario Henderson was playing well enough to be considered the favorite to win the job over Barnes. Barnes could still be in the mix at right tackle if Henderson wins the job on the left side.
The Raiders will also need to get some clarity at receiver. The unit has been one of the team's weakest areas for years and the Raiders need some reliable players to emerge during camp. The team is counting on youngsters Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If these young players show they are ready to take the next step, Oakland's offense has a chance to be balanced.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback JaMarcus Russell doesn't make strides. Russell has to show he is ready to be an NFL quarterback this season, and training camp and the preseason will go a long way toward telling whether he is ready to make a move. This is Russell's second full season as a starter. He has had some moments, but he has been mostly inconsistent, including during this offseason.
Russell will have extra pressure on him in the presence of veteran backup Jeff Garcia. Garcia has not been shy in expressing that he thinks he should be the starter. However, the Raiders will only be masking a problem if Garcia, 39, is the quarterback. If Russell doesn't have a good camp and he doesn't show consistency is his passing and improved leadership, the Raiders will be in a tough spot.
Camp will be a success if ... the Raiders develop a strong plan on how to use their tailbacks. The Raiders have three solid runners in Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. All three players possess rare talents that can help Oakland's offense. The Raiders struggled to use all three well last season.
Training camp must be used to find a suitable role for all three players. This may be the NFL's deepest running back group if all three stay healt
hy. The Raiders can find their niche on offense with McFadden, Fargas and Bush. Finding a way to do it has to be a goal of camp.
Ready or not: All eyes will be on Heyward-Bey, a receiver who was Oakland's first-round pick, and Mike Mitchell, the safety who was Oakland's second-round pick. The selections of both players were roundly criticized on draft day. Heyward-Bey was the first receiver taken at No. 7, but he was considered a low first-round talent. Mitchell was not on the draft board of several teams, yet the hard-hitting Ohio University product was taken with the No. 47 pick.
The Raiders believe both players can be special and it is clear both players have some skills. Yet, because of the negative hype stemming from their selections, extra pressure will be on both players. Their every move will be watched in camp. Welcome to the NFL, fellas.
San Diego Chargers
Training camp site: San Diego, Calif.
Campfires: This camp will be about seeing what a promising rookie class can do in San Diego. For a veteran-based team, there is an intriguing influx of young talent coming to town.
|Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire|
|The Chargers' secondary needs Antonio Cromartie to return to Pro Bowl form in 2009.|
First-round pick Larry English is expected to start right away and be part of an intriguing threesome of pass-rushing linebackers that includes Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, in his first full season in his role, has been scheming ways all offseason to use all three together. The Chargers believe English is ready to step in and make an impact right away.
Keep an eye out for two other rookies. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez will be given a chance to emerge as a starter at guard. Sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison will have the same chance at safety. He may have a steeper climb up the depth chart than Vasquez, but the Chargers think Ellison can make an impact as a rookie. The USC product was downgraded in the draft because of injuries, but he is skilled and he is a feared hitter. He could be the answer at one of the Chargers' few weak spots. But he needs to show his ability during camp.
Camp will be a downer if ... Merriman doesn't make strides from a serious knee injury he suffered last year. Merriman missed all but one game last season.
The Chargers have been cautiously optimistic about Merriman, but they have been bringing him along slowly. He has been working out on his own and the team will likely be cautious with him during camp. However, Merriman looks fantastic and he reports that he is doing well. The team expects him to be ready for the regular season. The Chargers' entire pass defense missed Merriman last year. If Merriman can't show he is getting ready for the season, the Chargers may be in store for another rocky season on defense.
Camp will be a success if ... cornerback Antonio Cromartie has a big camp and preseason. Cromartie had a disappointing season in 2008 after being a star in 2007. He suffered with injuries and off-field issues last season. He has worked out very hard this year and the Chargers were thrilled with him during the offseason. If he has a big camp, the Chargers should be in great shape on defense, especially if Merriman doesn't have a setback.
Is this it for LT? The Chargers and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson nearly parted ways this offseason before agreeing on a restructured new contract. Tomlinson just turned 30. He is coming off an injury-plagued season in which his production slipped.
He has said often this offseason he feels great. He needs to show he still has the skills that made him one of the greatest running backs in recent memory.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Let's rank the offenses in the AFC West.
In making our decision, we considered every aspect of the unit. We took into account the passing game, the running game, blocking and coaching. Here is how we saw it:
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Chargers' offense runs through Philip Rivers.|
Of course, it all starts with quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers, 27, is emerging as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL after three seasons as a starter. He threw for 4,009 yards last season.
His top targets are tight end Antonio Gates, who remains a premier player at his position, and receiver Vincent Jackson. A big receiver, Jackson is a deep threat who has a penchant for making big plays in important games.
Rivers works well in Norv Turner's system. Turner might have his detractors based on his work as a head coach, but his prowess as an offensive coach cannot be denied. Rivers has made strides under Turner.
The Chargers' run game is also top notch, even though superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson is showing signs of decline. Still, Tomlinson, who turned 30 in June, has to be counted as a 1,100-plus yard rusher until he proves he can no longer produce. His backup, Darren Sproles, is a key.
The diminutive Sproles is a terrific change-of-pace back who has proven he can help win games when Tomlinson is out. Expect to see Sproles get more carries this season as Turner tries to utilize both running backs.
San Diego's offensive line isn't as strong as it was a couple of years ago, but if the unit can stay healthy and rookie Louis Vasquez can come along at guard, it should be fine.
Overall, this is a strong group and the best offense in a division that is fairly decent on that side of the ball.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- After attending Oakland's minicamp on Friday, I came away with five observations about the team as it stands in early May:
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Running back Darren McFadden stood out at last weekend's Raiders mini-camp.|
Russell has a long way to go: The early portion of JaMarcus Russell's career has been blemished by his inconsistency. He showed those inconsistencies during the minicamp. On some plays, Russell appeared lost and others he seemed fine. He has a rocket arm, but he still has to work on his touch and his decision-making. The Raiders want Russell to work on all aspects of his game. He has a chance, but he is far from being out of the woods. He can still be a big draft bust.
The young receivers need to step up: The Raiders cannot count on Javon Walker helping them. He had another knee surgery this offseason and won't be ready until training camp. Three of the past four seasons have been disrupted by injuries for Walker. It would be unrealistic for Oakland to believe Walker will become an impact player for them. Thus, the youngsters have to come through. It begins with top pick Darrius Heyward-Bey. He was uneven in the minicamp. The book on Heyward-Bey is that he is inconsistent. He must prove otherwise and make a quick impact. Also, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens must continue to develop or Russell is not going to have a reliable receiving group once again.
Asomugha is a bright light: He is the face of the franchise. Signing Nnamdi Asomugha to the three-year, $45 million deal this offseason was a big move by the Raiders. Yes, he is expensive, but Asomugha is worth it. He is a true shut-down cornerback and he is a smart player. The Raiders haven't won much, but it isn't Asomugha's fault. He is a top-flight player.
Neal will help: One of the best attributes Al Davis has had over the years was finding veteran players who still had enough in the tank to help Oakland. Lorenzo Neal may be the latest key veteran addition in Oakland. Neal, who signed with Oakland on Friday, is in his 17th season and eighth NFL team. He is known as one of the greatest blocking fullbacks in NFL history. Even though he is 38, he is still playing at a high level. The Chargers missed him last season and he helped Baltimore's offense. With Oakland's combination of strong running backs and a weak offensive line, this is a fine match.
|Ezra Shaw/Getty Images|
|Rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey practiced with the Raiders for the first time Friday.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
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.
|G Fiume/Getty Images/L. Scott Mann/Icon SMI|
|In a questionable decision, the Raiders took Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (left) with the No. 7 pick instead of Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, who went to rivals San Francisco at No. 10 .|
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
The Oakland Raiders are a Bay Bridge ride away from what may be their latest draft blunder.
Three picks after the Raiders shocked the NFL by taking fast but inconsistent Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey instead of Michael Crabtree at No. 7, Oakland's rival, the San Francisco 49ers, took advantage and grabbed the Texas Tech receiver.
Crabtree was widely considered the best all-round wide receiver available in the draft. Heyward-Bey was considered a low-first round pick because of the fact that he disappeared in many college games and he has often displayed unsure hands.
But he's super fast. And that's why he is an Oakland Raider. Give Oakland owner Al Davis credit: the man sticks to his guns.
At the age of 79, Davis continues to value speed over everything else. If there is a knock on Crabtree, who is coming off a foot injury, it's that he is not the fastest receiver in the land. Larry Fitzgerald isn't the fastest receiver in the league. He is only the best. Jerry Rice wasn't a burner. But he is considered the greatest receiver ever to play in the NFL.
Heyward-Bey has big bust capability. I would have had no problem if the Raiders had traded down into the 20s to get Heyward-Bey. But it's a bad pick at No. 7. If the Raiders wanted a speedy receiver over Crabtree, they should have taken Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, who has been compared to former Oakland great Cliff Branch. Maclin, who went at No. 19 to the Philadelphia Eagles, is widely considered a better player than Heyward-Bey.
It is a particularly questionable pick considering that Crabtree was on the board. There is very little bust capability for Crabtree, who was ultra productive in college. He is going to be a solid No. 1 receiver in the NFL, at the very least. I'm not alone in my distaste for this choice. In a fan poll on ESPN.com, the Raiders received an "F" grade for their choice.
The Raiders are going to get a weekly reminder in the Bay Area of the one that got away. The 49ers just got a top receiver for the next 12 years.
Oakland desperately needs a No. 1 receiver, not another speedy project. They have Johnnie Lee Higgins, who led all Oakland receivers with 22 catches last season. Higgins is fast, but he's still developing.
Heyward-Bey is going to need time to adjust to the NFL. Oakland doesn't have time to bring along a receiver. It needs an impact player.
This is a pivotal season for Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who is entering his second full season as a starter. He needs a reliable receiver. Crabtree would have offered that reliability.
Sure, Heyward-Bey's speed and Russell's big arm will be a nice combination a few times a season. Heyward-Bey probably will make a few big plays as a rookie. It would be a shock if he will be a productive player all season. In fact, I would be surprised if Heyward-Bey ever becomes an elite player. There is little chance he will become the best receiver in the Bay Area.
This could be the worst mistake of all. If it is, the Raiders won't have to look far to be reminded of it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
It means little in the grand scheme. But the Oakland Raiders ended their 2008 home schedule with a smile.
And those have been rare in Oakland the past six years. The Raiders handled a Houston team that entered the game with a four-game winning streak.
The Raiders controlled the game. They are now 4-11 heading into their season finale at Tampa Bay.
Encouraging for next season was the play of young receivers Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens. Higgins had a touchdown catch and a punt return for a score and Schilens had a touchdown catch. The game was one of quarterback JaMarcus Russell's best of the season.
Again, there hasn't much to cheer about in Oakland this season so Raiders fans should savor it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Here are some observations from the action thus far in the AFC West:
* Raiders kick returner Johnnie Lee Higgins acquitted himself with a 93-yard kickoff return. It could keep him in business in Oakland, Higgins struggled and he lost a fumble last week Oakland's claimed Justin Miller from the Jets on waivers this week. And he will do some returning as well. That could help keep him employed in Oakland.
* Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell finally seems to realize that he needs get the ball to tight end Zach Miller. He had four catches for 67 yards Miller is one of the Raiders' best offensive players and he needs to get the ball more.
* Denver rookie running back Peyton Hillis scored two touchdowns in his first game as the starting tailback.
* After handling Michael Turner for much of the game, Denver's battered defense allowed Turner to score on a 28-yard run in the fourth quarter. The Falcons star running back was a Denver killer as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego.
* Late in the fourth quarter, Larry Johnson has 18 rushes with Kansas City. It's more than what was expected after he sat out the last four games on the bench. It is interesting that Kansas City is working Johnson in this new spread offense as much as it has.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The buzz that has been building around the Buffalo Bills turned into full-blown rapture.
With the Miami Dolphins obliterating the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., the Bills seized the moment with a dramatic 24-23 comeback victory over the Oakland Raiders to assume sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
The Raiders, with head coach Lane Kiffin seemingly on his way to the gallows, held a nine-point lead with 6:23 left in the game, when Johnnie Lee Higgins streaked through the Bills secondary on an 84-yard catch-and-run. The play came on a third-and-10 situation and looked like a back breaker.
But the Bills were relentless. Bills QB Trent Edwards hit WR Roscoe Parrish for a 14-yard touchdown with 4:03 remaining. The defense forced a three-and-out, and Rian Lindell kicked a 38-yard field goal at the gun.
RB Marshawn Lynch overcame a slow to start, scored two touchdowns and had some clutch runs late.
Buffalo escaped in so many ways. Its offensive line had a particularly bad day. Edwards constantly had defenders in his face. He was sacked three times, fumbled once and threw his first interception of the season. Fullback Darian Barnes and wide receiver Lee Evans also lost fumbles.
Field position was a problem. The Bills started on their own 13- and 11-yard lines in the first quarter. Their starting points in the second half were their own 22, 1, 12, 4 and 32.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
OAKLAND -- Raiders wide receiver Javon Walker will be inactivate for tonight's Broncos-Raiders game. Walker will miss playing against the team that cut him because of a hamstring injury he suffered Saturday. Raiders coach Lane Kiffin had said Walker would play. Johnnie Lee Higgins will replace him in the starting lineup and just-signed Ashley Lelie will likely play as well.
More on both team's inactive list shortly.