Oakland hopes Dudley can regain past form

Hoping that he can regain some flashes of the big-play form he demonstrated in his first stint with the team, the Oakland Raiders have signed unrestricted free agent tight end Rickey Dudley, a nine-year veteran whose career began as the Raiders' first-round selection in the 1996 draft.

At age 33, Dudley is hardly the deep threat of his earlier days, and is coming off a spate of injuries that limited him to only 28 games in the last four seasons. But Dudley is still an exceptional athlete and, even as a third tight end, could provide some presence in the middle of the field for what figures to be one of the NFL's most potent passing attacks.

Dudley reportedly signed a one-year contract that includes a $665,000 base salary. With the Raiders so potentially explosive at wide receiver, the team's tight ends could get some deep-ball opportunities in 2005, and Dudley is certainly the most accomplished pass-catcher on the roster at the position.

The former Ohio State star will vie with journeymen Zeron Flemister and Josh Norman for the third tight end spot, behind starter Teyo Johnson and backup Courtney Anderson.

In his five seasons with the Raiders at the outset of his NFL career, Dudley was a model of durability and productivity. He never missed a regular-season contest in his first stint with the franchise and started in all but two of his 80 appearances. Dudley averaged 37.2 catches, 525.4 yards and 5.8 touchdowns -- solid numbers for the tight end position.

Only once in his first five years did Dudley post fewer than 30 receptions and he scored at least four touchdowns every season. In terms of all-around productivity, Dudley's best season was in 1997, when he registered 48 catches and 787 yards, both career highs, and scored seven touchdowns. In 1999, he scored a career-best nine times. His average of 14.1 yards per catch was the best in the league for a tight end during those five seasons.

But since departing the Raiders following the 2000 season, Dudley has been victimized by a series of debilitating injuries. Only once in the last four years, when he played in 14 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, had Dudley made more than seven appearances. He has been forced to rehabilitate from foot, ankle and thumb injuries.

In the injury-marred four-year stretch, Dudley averaged just 8.8 receptions and just once had more than 10 catches.

Since the departure of Dudley, the Oakland starting tight ends have averaged 30.8 catches in four seasons, with the number of receptions decreasing every year.