Commentary

Raiders quietly building a winner

Solid drafting (of all things) has allowed Oakland to emerge as a surprise team

Originally Published: September 30, 2011
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

Only now has Oakland begun to erase the memories of mistakes that have taken years to overcome.

In 2005, Oakland used its first-round draft pick on cornerback Fabian Washington one pick before Green Bay drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

In 2007, the Raiders drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell No. 1 overall, just before Calvin Johnson went to Detroit at No. 2, offensive tackle Joe Thomas went to Cleveland at No. 3 and running back Adrian Peterson went to Minnesota at No. 7.

Pairing Rodgers with Johnson would have given the Raiders the type of team the Lions have built. Yet with a 2-1 start heading into Sunday's showdown versus New England, Oakland still has become one of the NFL's early-season surprises.

Since some memorable misses, the Raiders have continually connected. They have been on a run of quiet confidence that has replenished the roster, transformed their team, and created a certifiable challenger to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West.

In 2008, the Raiders used the fourth overall pick on running back Darren McFadden, who now leads the league in rushing.

In 2009, the Raiders traded a 2011 first-round pick to New England for defensive lineman Richard Seymour, a franchise player who will be battling his former Patriots teammates Sunday.

And then, in the past two years, the Raiders have fortified their trenches, drafting linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive end Lamarr Houston, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and center/guard Stefen Wisniewski, to go along with their customary speed merchants in wide receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore.

Oakland is trying, in the words of coach Hue Jackson, "to build a bully." So far it looks like it's working.

Based on conversations with NFL scouts, here's what makes Oakland formidable: its defensive line is tough and talented, and its running game is explosive and excellent. Now New England will give Oakland an accurate gauge of exactly how much progress it has made.

Through three weeks, the NFL has seen surprise teams emerge in the AFC East and NFC North. Some suspect there could be another in the AFC West.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Bob Donnan/US PresswireNo matter how great Cam Newton becomes, his paycheck will be the same for the foreseeable future.
1. Newton a bargain for Carolina: Over the next three seasons, nobody will contain Carolina quarterback Cam Newton any better than the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement. It has slowed him down in a way the Chicago Bears are hoping to Sunday. Under terms of the NFL's 10-year CBA, no rookie, including Newton, is allowed to renegotiate, alter or amend his contract in any way until after the final regular-season game of his third season. This means the Panthers have Newton this season at the rookie minimum $375,000 base salary and a salary-cap number of just over $4 million, nearly a million less than the salary-cap number that Alex Smith has in San Francisco.

Carolina handed Newton a handsome $14.5 million bonus this summer, but Newton better save it. He won't be seeing another bonus anytime soon. No matter how well Newton continues to perform -- and he has been the best rookie in the NFL this season -- Newton is assured of making a total of $18.6 million the next three seasons, which is more than $7 million less than what the Colts are paying quarterback Peyton Manning this season alone. And Newton already was paid $56 million less than the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Sam Bradford.

To compare Bradford's $78 million deal that included $50 million guaranteed to Newton's $22 million deal illustrates just how hard rookies have been hit. But they're locked in, too. What Newton's start has illustrated is that, although teams have added protection against exorbitant salaries for high draft picks that flame out, premium players who now shine early in their careers will be victimized and exposed.

Carolina has watched Newton turn into the NFL's most exciting rookie and one of its best bargains as well. He has given the Panthers not only the injection of hope they needed, but salary-cap flexibility for years to come, though not of his own choosing. By now, details of the NFL's new CBA are, thankfully, an afterthought. But Newton, and the salaries he will make, are not.

2. Roar is restored: There have been plenty of good times to be a fan of Michigan's sports teams. But not many have been more enjoyable than now. For the first time since 1987, the Detroit Tigers are division champs. And for the first time since 1980, the Detroit Lions are 3-0 heading into Sunday's game versus Dallas.

For those who think the Lions' start is a fluke, think again. Dating to last season, the Lions now have won seven straight games, the NFL's longest winning streak. And Detroit's winning already has had one unintended result. It is making Thanksgiving Day with the Lions and Packers even more appetizing.

[+] EnlargeTony Sparano
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaWith his Dolphins 0-3, Tony Sparano is on the hot seat.
3. Heat is on Sparano: This is the NFL version of Miami heat. Tony Sparano watched the Miami Dolphins court Jim Harbaugh during the offseason, and now is 0-3 this season with a road game at San Diego before a bye, then a Monday night game in New Jersey against the Jets.

Bye weeks typically have been the in-season time when teams inclined to make coaching changes strongly consider them. If the Dolphins fail to win Sunday at San Diego, the spotlight on Sparano -- who got a two-year contract extension during the offseason for Miami's botched courtship of Harbaugh -- will intensify. Miami could opt to turn to its defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, or quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell as an interim head-coaching replacement.

But the Dolphins look doomed, not unlike a trade the team nearly completed this summer. Just when the Dolphins were about to trade a fourth-round pick to the Broncos for quarterback Kyle Orton in August, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross declined to pay the three-year, $27 million extension that the quarterback and Miami already had agreed to, league sources said. When Ross declined to pay Orton, the deal blew up. Now Miami's season almost has.

The Dolphins have lost six straight, 11 of their past 12 at home, and fans are staying away from their games. Ross could opt for a coaching change, but he should be warned. The Raiders and Rams each changed coaches four games into the 2008 season. Oakland finished 4-8; St. Louis 2-10.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTennessee's Chris Johnson is averaging only 2.1 yards per carry this season.
4. CJ on the spot: With injured wide receiver Kenny Britt lost for the season, the Titans need running back Chris Johnson to produce more than ever. Problem is, he hasn't lately.

Dating to last season, Johnson now has gone five straight games without a 100-yard rushing performance. In those five games combined, Johnson has 195 yards -- fewer than he has rushed for in two games alone during his career.

This season Johnson doesn't even have 100 rushing yards -- he has 46 carries for 98 yards. One NFL executive said this summer, before the Titans paid Johnson $30 million guaranteed, that he didn't see Tennessee's running back running as hard during the 2010 season. This season he has looked hesitant and indecisive. But that Johnson has been ineffective and the Titans still are 2-1 is the proof of how well Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has played.

5. The Ravens' newest threat: In April, when St. Louis had the 47th overall selection in the draft, Baltimore was worried that the Rams would take the wide receiver the Ravens wanted, Torrey Smith. St. Louis opted for Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks, leaving Smith for the Ravens.

The moves were accentuated in Week 3, when Smith caught three touchdown passes in one quarter against the Rams. Now the Ravens need Smith to play that way the rest of the season. Yet even if he doesn't, the threat still is there. Defenses now will have to respect the speed that Smith and Lee Evans have and guard against it. Looking out for Baltimore's new speedy wideouts should create more lanes for running back Ray Rice and make the Ravens a more dangerous team.

6. Wallace setting sights high: No receiver seems to have the speed of Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, who has developed into one of the league's most dynamic players. For all the talk about Pittsburgh's running game, Wallace has had six straight games of more than 100 yards receiving, and he has done it in nine of his past 12 games as well.

With 100-yard games becoming increasingly automatic, Wallace has even discussed the idea of a 2,000-yard receiving season, which no longer seems so unattainable. Maybe the only thing that could slow Wallace is himself: He now is nursing a rib cartilage injury for Sunday's game against Houston.

7. Bradford can't hold on: Heading into Sunday's game versus Washington, St. Louis and quarterback Sam Bradford literally have dropped the ball. In each of the Rams' three games, Bradford has had one of his fumbles returned for a touchdown. Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker did it in Week 1, Giants linebacker Michael Boley did it in Week 2, and Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata did it in Week 3.

Now Bradford has become the first quarterback in the NFL's expansion era since 1960 to have a lost fumble returned for a touchdown in three consecutive games, according to Elias Sports Bureau. It's not too late for the Rams. Their second-half schedule is very friendly. But if Bradford keeps dropping the ball, the Rams are going to drop out of contention in the NFC West.

[+] EnlargeCharles Woodson
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesVictimizing fellow Heisman Trophy winners is among Charles Woodson's specialties.

8. Now's not the time for Tebow: Denver has balked at playing quarterback Tim Tebow, and it might serve the Broncos well to stick to that Sunday at Green Bay. No one has haunted Heisman Trophy winners quite like Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who is the only Heisman winner to ever intercept a pass by a fellow Heisman winner in the NFL.

Counting this season, Woodson now has done it four times. He already did it to Newton in Week 2, just as he had done it against Matt Leinart in 2006 and 2010, Vinny Testaverde in 2007 and Carson Palmer in 2009, when Woodson picked off the former Bengals quarterback two times in one game. In the unlikely event the Broncos have to call on Tebow, Woodson will be ready. 9. Video game-type numbers: If it seems as if this season has been more explosive than any other it's because it has been. So far, teams have registered the most points (2,157), net passing yards (23,560) and passing touchdowns (153) through the first three weeks of any season in NFL history. Footballs are flying around everywhere.

Ten teams are averaging 400 or more yards of total offense, the highest total through three games of a season since 1970. Sure doesn't look like the lockout has hurt teams' timing -- except maybe on defense.

10. Schedule quirks: Before this season, there had not been a single weekend since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger in which there wasn't at least one divisional matchup. Yet for the second time in two weeks -- the first coming in Week 2 -- there will not be a single divisional matchup on Sunday. Plus, to add to the oddities, the 16 teams that hosted games in Week 2 all are on the road this week. It's all part of the lockout-influenced schedule in which the league was taking steps to safeguard that the fewest number of divisional games would be missed. So even though the lockout is over, its effects still are being felt.

The Schef's specialties

•  Game of the week: Pittsburgh at Houston -- Texans get a chance to prove they can play with the tough teams.

•  Player of the week: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson -- Minnesota knows it needs to feed Peterson more, especially against a Chiefs defense vulnerable to the run.

•  Upset of the week: Arizona over N.Y. Giants -- It will be difficult for the Giants to match their level of play in Philadelphia a second straight week in Arizona.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.