NFL Nation: Mario Henderson
- Chargers cornerback and punt returner Antoine Cason is now expected to miss 2-4 weeks with a broken finger. He could still potentially be kept out of the preseason.
- The word is the Raiders may revisit bringing back offensive lineman Mario Henderson. The key for Henderson is controlling his weight.
- The Chargers special teams' unit has a new name. I’m not interested in cute names. Here’s my question: Is the unit going to stop costing the team games this season?
|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
A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:
Who's out: Jay Cutler, quarterback, traded to Chicago.
Who's in: Kyle Orton, quarterback, acquired from Chicago.
Outlook: It would be impossible for Broncos fans to expect Orton to have the same impact that Cutler had. Orton simply isn't as talented as Cutler.
But in new Denver coach Josh McDaniels' system, the team is confident Orton, who was named Denver's starting quarterback over Chris Simms on Saturday, can manage games and help win games.
Orton was a decent player in Chicago. Cutler was becoming a great player in Denver before he butted heads with McDaniels. Orton probably never will make the highlight-film plays that Cutler does and he never will amass the passing yardage Cutler does. But McDaniels believes Orton will work well in the system. Denver wants the run to set up the pass and Orton has the best receiving weapons of his career. He may not be fancy and he won't make people forget about Cutler's arm, but Orton has a chance to succeed in Denver because of the system that helped Matt Cassel enjoy fast success in New England last year.
Who's out: Tony Gonzalez, tight end, traded to Atlanta.
Who's in: Brad Cottam, tight end.
Outlook: Cottam will have some competition, including journeymen Sean Ryan and Tony Curtis. But the team likes Cottam, who was a third-round pick last year. The thing is, Cottam is more of a blocking tight end and will not remind anyone of Gonzalez, who is the greatest receiving tight end of all time.
But Cottam will get dirty and help in the running game. New Kansas City coach Todd Haley used the tight end sparingly as the offensive coordinator in Arizona. So, Cottam won't have that much pressure on him to make an impact in the receiving game.
Who's out: Kwame Harris, left tackle, cut.
Who's in: Mario Henderson, left t
Outlook: Khalif Barnes was signed as a free agent to replace Harris, who flopped in one season in Oakland. However, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Henderson is beating out Barnes heading to training camp.
Oakland coach Tom Cable likes Henderson, a third-year player. Still, Barnes was brought in to start. So, Henderson will have to earn the job. This has long been a problem position for Oakland. Perhaps it will be the young Henderson who offers stability.
Who's out: Mike Goff, guard, signed with Kansas City as a free agent.
Who's in: Louis Vasquez, guard.
Outlook: Vasquez will battle with veteran Kynan Forney, who was originally expected to replace Goff, whom the team did not pursue in free agency.
However, Vasquez, a third-round pick, has been outstanding in the spring. If Vasquez has a strong training camp and preseason, expect him to win the job. The Chargers are looking for a long-term answer at the position and they believe it could be Vasquez.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
OAKLAND -- In addition to Javon Walker, there are other inactive players for Oakland.
Denver's inactives: Safety Calvin Lowry, running back Ryan Torain, linebacker Louis Green, tackle Erik Pears, center Tom Nalen, guard Dylan Gandy, defensive end Jarvis Moss and defensive tackle Josh Shaw.
The only surprise is Moss. He had no reported injury, making this is a surprising move. The 2007 first-round pick finished last season injured but Oakland was expecting a lot from him this year. Yet, Moss was unproductive in the preseason. If Moss was a healthy scratch for this game, it would not bode well for Moss on a defense that hungry for a pass rush.
Casey Wiegmann continues to start for Nalen, who is coming off a knee injury. Nalen may be back in the coming week.
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