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First Raider OTA’s: All eyes on the New guys

The first round of Raider Organized Team Activities (OTA’s) start today in Alameda. And while many veterans will be in attendance, the next three days will be all about the new acquistions and rookies. Many of these players were on the field for mini camp a few weeks ago, however most of them had only been with the team for about a week.

Since that time there has been time to absorb the playbook so the coaches can get their first idea of what they have in these new players.

Among the offseason acquisitions, linebacker Kamerion Wimbley has been with the team the longest as he was signed on March 14. With over a month more time with the team than most of the newbies, he should be well up to speed at this point.

It would be more than a month before the Raiders traded for DE/LB Quentin Groves from the Jaguars just prior to the draft. Two linebacker signings signaled good things for a group in desperate need of an upgrade.

The next day came the draft and the first draft pick was that of Alabama middle linebacker Rolando McClain. He already looked impressive in mini camps. As ‘the quarterback of the defense’, and the projected starter, his progression will be the most closely monitored among any player at OTA’s. The job of the middle linebacker is first and foremost, to quickly read and recognize how the offense is lined up and allign the defense accordingly. His quick transition will be key to the efficiency of which the line backing corps and the defense as a whole, function.

The next two acquistions focus on the defensive line. The first came on April 6 when the Raiders brought back former Raider sixth round pick Chris Cooper. He has played both defensive tackle and defensive end so this week the coaches will be able to get a better idea of where he fits in, if at all.

The next pick up was the drafting of DT Lamarr Houston in round 2. He can also play both DT and DE. Tom Cable immediately said that the 300 pound lineman was drafted to play DE. With Richard Seymour not at mini camps while they work on an extension, Houston was lining up with the first team opposite Matt Shaughnessy. But Cable as well as Houston have both suggested that once Seymour is back in the fold, he will run with the second team. This move seems odd considering the Raiders need at the defensive tackle spot combined with Houston’s high draft selection.

Houston was the lone Raider draft pick along the line but since then, the Raiders have brought in a few more guys to compete along the defensive line. Two undrafted free agents in defensive end Alex Daniels out of Cincinnati and the other was 6-6 355 pound Kellen Heard out of Memphis. Then the day before the first day of OTA’s they brought back Ryan Boschetti who was signed last offseason but didn’t make the squad out of camp. The ink won’t even be dry yet as Boschetti puts on his helmet and takes the practice field but hopefully he remembers some of what he learned in last years camp.

Alex Daniels looked fantastic in mini camps and was mentioned as a standout performer by coach Cable on at least two separate occasions. He has a great chance of making this team at this point. Of course, he was working on pure hustle and athleticism 3 weeks ago. Now we will see what he can do with some playbook knowledge as well as some stronger play from the offensive linemen he must square off against.

With two of the biggest players along the defensive line are Seymour (320) and Houston (300) both playing at defensive end, Kellen Heard (355) is the only player the Raiders have that resembles a big run stopper in the middle of the line. And with the team planning on mixing in some 3-4 looks, it would almost appear they are pinning all of their hopes on Heard to be the nose tackle in that scheme. Today the coaches will get their first clues as to whether those hopes can be reality.

A player there is no doubt the Raiders are pinning their hopes on is new projected starting quarterback, Jason Campbell. He started mini camps looking a bit out of sorts which was to be expected as the newest member of the group of quarterbacks. What wasn’t expected was just how quickly he would catch on. All the talk on the first day was that JaMarcus Russell looked the best among the quarterbacks practicing which consisted of Charlie Frye, Kyle Boller, Campbell and Russell while Campbell looked the worst. But by the time the third day rolled around, the tables had done a 180. Campbell had quickly emerged as the best quarterback on the field while JaMarcus…well…was JaMarcus again.

Now Russell is out of the picture and Bruce Gradkowski is still roaming the sideline rehabbing his torn pectoral muscle so Campbell will have the first team all to himself to show his wares. He has had more coordinators in the past five years than he can count on one hand so I am placing the odds of him being well ahead of schedule very high.

Battery mate Kyle Boller’s journey will take much more battling however. He was signed on April 15 and will need to have made significant progress or he may just fall so far behind Charlie Frye on the depth chart that he can’t recover. He has a lot to prove after the former top pick didn’t live up to expectations out of Cal and then couldn’t hang on in St Louis after a year there. Working in his favor are his arm strength which Al Davis covets and having played at Cal while several Raider coaches were employed there. Although, those qualities may have only served to get him into camp. What he does from here is up to him.

The next area in greatest need of a significant upgrade this offseason was the offensive line. The tackle position in particular needed serious work. The Raiders waited through the first big free agency period without a move and didn’t make any trades to acquire any either despite the rumors that they may make a move to get OT Jared Gaither from the Ravens. They waited until the end of day 2 of the draft to grab highly touted OT Jared Veldheer out of little touted Hillsdale College with their round 3 selection.

Veldheer struggled a bit in mini camps lining up at the left tackle spot with the second team. But that is to be expected especially from a guy who had rarely faced top tier talent in his high school and college career. By his own admission, he gave up his first and only sack ever when he played in the Texas vs. The Nation game. Which just so happened to be the first time he faced top tier division 1 talent. The hope is that he has acclimated to the speed of the NFL and the calibre of talent he will face from now on.

The next pick of the 2010 draft for the Raiders came in the early 4 round and brought Maryland OT Bruce Campbell. Cable said that Campbell would be moved to guard to get him more playing time. Campbell’s athleticism is perfect for the guard position in the zone blocking scheme. The question becomes just how long it will take him to learn the scheme and if and when the Raiders would start him over incumbant right guard Cooper Carlisle. For now Campbell will back up both guard positions and the coaches will get a great idea of how much he has learned so far and quickly he can pick things up in the next few days.

The other new offensive lineman in the mix is journeyman G Daniel Loper who was cut by the Lions after 5 starts last season. The Raiders also signed undrafted free agent rookie guard Alex Parsons out of USC and we will get our first glimpse of him on Wednesday.

After the needs along the lines and line backing corps, Cable said that the Raiders would upgrade the return game in the draft. And he upgraded it in that order too when the Raiders traded up to grab speedy WR/KR Jacoby Ford out of Clemson in round 4. He immediately puts heat on Jonnie Lee Higgins to even make this Raider team. Ford is everything Higgins is and a bit more. Because while both are speedy receiver/kick returners, Ford has shown slightly better hands and production against consistently higher level competition. On top of that, Higgins is not as quick as Ford. And by ‘quick’ I mean lateral quickness. The battle has begun although, the trading up to get Ford makes him the odds on favorite to win that battle. Nick Miller is the other return specialist and he should be back healthy and ready to resume his duties as well.

Other newcomers that could handle kick and punt return duties include Yamon Figurs who was signed way back in January and Rock Cartwright who signed with the team in the days following the draft. Cartwright is seen more as a running back than a returner although he could return kicks in a pinch and that raises his value and therefore his odds of making the squad.

Competing with Cartwright for the backup running back spot will be former Charger and Viking, Michael Bennett. He was given a tryout during mini camps and I noted at the time the he looked like he still had a great speed and elusiveness. The team agreed with that assessment and decided to sign him.

The final area Tom Cable had mentioned the Raiders would target in the draft was defensive back. As usual he didn’t lie as the Raiders next pick in the draft and three of their final four draft picks, were spent on DB’s.

The round 5 pick was CB Walter McFadden. He has a great chance of making this team simply based on the lack of depth at corner. But on top of that, he looked quite good at mini camps and will hope to improve upon that sampling in OTA’s.

The Raiders two round 7 picks were spent on CB Jeremy Ware and safety Stevie Brown. Ware is the wild card here because as I just mentioned, the Raiders are very thin at corner. The only other corner the team has signed is journeymand backup CB Joey Thomas he will be given every opportunity to fill that final corner spot.

Brown has a much bigger hill to climb. He transitioned from safety to linebacker his senior year at Michigan and is now being asked to transition back to safety. He will need to wow coaches immediately for him to have a shot at supplanting Jerome Boyd and/or Hiram Eugene in the safety rotation.

After the draft the Raiders quickly went to work at fullback with the signings of UDFA’s Manase Tonga and Chane Moline. One of them will be making this team but we don’t have a good idea of which one as of yet. The battle with bubble players Marcel Reece and Luke Lawton for the two fullback spots will be a good one.

We will keep you posted on what we see and hear during these first OTA’s. Keep checking back because there are quite a few things that could shake out in the coming days.

Other newcomers include:

Rookie 6th round pick LB Travis Goethel– will compete for backup MLB

7 year vet (Seahawks) TE John Owens


Raiders’ UDFA Roundup