This preseason, more than most, we have seen a rebuilt Raider team. There is 11 new starters this season, the last three starters being named the week following the final preseason game. That is half the team’s starters being different than last season. Very few starting jobs were grandfathered in from last season. There were open competitions at many positions and the preseason games were instrumental in deciding who got the nod for the beginning of the season.
Equally as important, were the competitions for making the squad. In recent years it has seemed like those that barely made the team were simply the lesser of the evils. This year, the competition seemed a bit more heated, with rookies and new acquisitions having to really fight to prove they were worthy of being on a team filled with talented players. The result is a team that, for the most part, has backups that could step in to take over for a starter without too much of a drop-off.
Here are a few of the players who outplayed their expectations and those who are either out of a job or should be.
Bennett was a real surprise in camp this year. He wasn’t even signed initially. He was practicing with the team in mini camps but wasn’t listed on the roster because he was invited to try out for the team in the hopes they might give him a shot. I could tell right away that he still had speed to burn and good instincts to go with it. But still, it is not often a player who had to audition for a spot on a preseason roster, shows up the way Bennett has. He made the Baller list twice in the preseason and once was named honorable mention. He had over 100 total yards in game one against the Cowboys and had 92 yards rushing in the final preseason game against the Seahawks. He also had 78 total yards in one half of football against the Bears in week two. He ended the preseason with 236 yards rushing; good for 2nd most in the NFL. He earned his spot on this team and he will be a valuable addition in relief of Darren McFadden to begin the season.
Nick is one of a few guys from the 2009 undrafted free agent class for the Raiders, and he just continues to impress. In two plays this preseason, he showed why the team saw fit to keep him on the roster all of last season despite being injured. His return to the field reminded everyone of the kind of brilliant catches he made last preseason that made him so valuable. He put bookends on his preseason this year by having spectacular diving touchdown catches in game one against the Cowboys and the final preseason game against the Seahawks.
In the Cowboy game He took a well placed pass from Kyle Boller in the back corner of the endzone leaped in the air and came down with his feet barely inbounds for a touchdown. It would be the Raiders only offensive touchdown of the game. In the final game vs the Seahawks, with the Raiders on the 16 yard line, he ran up the sideline and laid out across the goal line to pull in a gorgeous touchdown catch. Although he didn’t show his return skills in the preseason this year, the Raiders also know he can be very dangerous in that area as well. It appears the Raiders are leaning toward utilizing his receiving skills foremost, but he could easily step in a light it up in the return game if called upon.
The hype surrounding Routt started about the time the Raiders slapped a 1st and 3rd round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Many people who had seen his play since coming in the league out of University of Houston, wondered how the Raiders could place such value on him. Afterall, he had never even been a starter for the Raiders. But this offseason, Tom Cable started buzzing about Routt’s newfound focus and work ethic. Even still it was a matter of Routt proving it on the field. But what began this preseason as skepticism, quickly became optimism.
Starting corner, Chris Johnson was out for Game 2 and 3 of the preseason and Routt was given his chance to show his wares. And in those two games, he did indeed look like he had harnessed talent we had not seen from him before. Nnamdi Asomugha was out as well for the Bears game leaving Routt as the closest this the Raiders had to a starter. At which time, Routt showed that he WAS a starter. He completely shut down the Bears best receiver, Johnny Knox. He had two passes defended in the game on Knox and Devin Hester. Then he came out in the 49er game and was just as dominant in coverage. His poor tackling skills are now his one glaring weakness but his coverage abilities earned him the starting job over Chris Johnson to begin the season. Hopefully he will keep playing well enough to keep the job.
This once high first round pick by the Ravens was released last offseason and then spent one season in St Louis before being released again this offseason. The Raiders coaching staff is familiar with Boller because Cable coached at Cal along with Hue Jackson who also coached Boller while he was on the staff for the Ravens. But while the familiarity brought Boller to Oakland, it was his outstanding play that earned him a spot on this team.
When Boller joined the team, Bruce Gradkowski was out with a torn pectoral muscle. This gave him extra work behind incumbant third stringer, Charlie Frye. Then Charlie Frye went down with an injured wrist and Gradkowski got hurt again as well. This meant that Boller was pretty much all the team had as far as depth behind Jason Campbell. The Raiders signed Colt Brennan but he had only been with the team a few days before the Raiders were to play the Cowboys in the first game of the preseason. So despite Jason Campbell playing only a couple of series, Boller came in and played the entire game after that. He played 3 quarters of nearly flawless football with a touchdown and no interceptions.
He came out in the Bears game and played nearly the entire second half as well and had just two incompletions. He played so well that Colt Brennan was given one pass the entire preseason. By the time Gradkowski was back from his injury, Boller had locked down his roster spot on this team.
How many times have we heard the saying “It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts”? Well, Ware was drafted by the Raiders in the 7th round out of Michigan State and had most fans saying “Who?”. When he was chosen, the Raider Nation consensus was hoping for either a defensive tackle or a fullback. Ware didn’t do much to prove he was worthy in his first game and was named a Buster. But by the final game against the Seahawks, he was top Baller. He considerably outplayed his draft position in that game.
He had a great camp overall and he and, 5th round selection, Walter McFadden have been neck and neck for the first corner off the bench after Nnamdi, Routt, and CJ. But regardless of who it is, the Raiders go from being so thin they had to convert a receiver to corner (Jonathan Holland) last season, to having solid depth at the corner position this season.
When Figurs was first signed by the Raiders, I didn’t think he had much chance to make this team. Then when I saw him catch in camp, I thought he had even less of a chance. But ever since then, he has proven me wrong. He was always a speed guy who had value in the return game going back to his days at Kansas State. But this preseason, he proved that, when the lights come on, he makes the tough catches. He ended the preseason with a drop in which he broke wide open on a post route but he had shown in the preseason leading up to that drop that he is worth a shot. He tied for the team lead in receptions among wide receivers with six and he proved to be the best option the team has in the return game. And the Raiders’ return game needs all the help it can get.
Brown is the only guy on this list that never made the Baller list once this preseason. But he makes it on the overall list for his body of work. He had a turnover in three of the four preseason games– two interceptions and a fumble recovery in kick coverage. He would have had three interceptions if he hadn’t dropped the first one early in the first game against the Cowboys. Nnamdi Asomugha had this to say about rookie 7th round pick:
“Stevie Brown makes a play every time we go on the field in games. Either he’s living right or he’s doing something right because he always seems to make a play.”
Asomugha was also among those Raider players that lobbied for Brown to make the Raider roster. The coaching staff was also reportedly unaminous in wanting Stevie on the team but in the end, he was the final player released in the final cut-down. He was luckily signed to the practice squad so he is still around. The Raiders hope he can continue to show that nose for the ball and hone his game to become a solid safety and special teams standout. Look for him to be on the roster before the season is over.
Kamerion Wimbley– Had a 4 sack game. That one game had him tied for 2nd in the NFL in the preseason
Jonnie Lee Higgins– Plainly put, he saved his job with a solid preseason. His six receptions tied for team lead among wide receivers.
Jared Veldheer– Looked like a rookie at times but there is something to be said for a guy who steps in and takes the starting center job after playing tackle his entire career.
Yes, the Raiders’ special teams coordinator is top preseason Buster. As if anyone needed a reminder from me just how terrible this man is at his job. After all, in both of the final two preseason contests, the kick coverage team gave up long return touchdowns. The first was an 83 yard punt return touchdown and the last time it was a 99 yard kick return TD. And both returns looked exactly the same– right down the middle, through a gaping hole, untouched, and all the way to pay dirt. In fact the Raider coverage teams consistently gave up big gains. They also gave up a 54 yard kick return in the Seattle game.
The flip side to this is the Raiders consistently get next to nothing on punt and kick returns. They had just one kick return over 25 yards in this preseason (37 yards by Cartwright). Among teams this preseason, they were ranked 25th in the NFL in kick return average (22 yards), barely over the 20 yard line barrier. But even worse was their punt returns which ranked 30th in the NFL with just 4.0 yards per return.
This is not just a recent thing for Fassel. The moment he took over for Brian Schneider last season, the Raiders went from one of the best special teams in the league to one of the worst. The Raiders had 5 return touchdowns in 2008 and since then have had ZERO.
These failures cannot be attributed to personell either. The Raiders have had almost entirely the same players on special teams since 2008 (the recent release of Isaiah Ekejiuba not withstanding). The coverage and blocking teams have been pretty much the same guys. Jonnie Lee Higgins, who had three return touchdowns in 08, is still here. And of course, the All Pro trio of Shane Lechler, Sebastian Janikowski and Jon Condo are also still here. All signs point to Fassel’s absolute incompetence in regards to special teams play. For now fans will just have to hope the Raiders hired his assistant Craig Dickenson last month with designs on training Fassel’s replacement. That is the only hope for this unit.
The only player this preseason to make the buster list three times. Morris was already on thin ice with the Raiders after a terrible year in relief duties last season. He was retained by the team because he was a passable guard or center. But last year, when he was called upon, his versatility was shown to be more of a crappy center and crappy guard. But he could still play those positions and the Raiders were desperate for depth especially with the injuries to Robert Gallery and Cornell Green. This preseason, he was back to his usual crappy play.
He got started off very badly as he snapped the ball early, causing a fumble in his first play of the preseason. The other two games he gave up a steady dose of run stuffs, QB pressures and penalties. The moment the Raiders put Veldheer in as the starting center, Morris’ career with the Raiders officially ended. And the quarterbacks breathed a collective sigh of releif.
How does a guy go from being the starter to being beaten out by a guy who has never played center before? Well, for starters (no pun intended); regressing from the previous season. When the Raiders traded for Satele from the Dolphins last offseason, he got off to a rocky start. That was expected as he was jumping into the fray on a team that ran a zone blocking scheme. But by midseason, he seemed to have turned the corner and was playing some decent football. At least it was good enough to ease the coach’s minds. His biggest detractor was always his size and how it effected his ability to block bigger nose tackles in the league. The thinking with the Raider staff was that his size was not an issue because the ZBS typically has smaller, more athletic lineman. But what was happening to him this offseason was more to do with technique. He was simply missing assigments and getting beat one on one.
The next factor that contributed to his demotion was getting hurt. Not the injury itself, but rather the door it opened for Jared Veldheer to show what he was capable of. And outside of a couple mental errors, that come with playing a new position for the first time in the NFL, Veldheer looked quite good. He certainly wasn’t having any issues holding off defenders at the point of attack. He was a highly thought of offensive tackle in college so oncoming rushers are no problem for him. He also has the size to bull through defenders in blocking. That is all the coaches needed to see to feel more comfortable going into the season with Veldheer in at centerover Satele. And if Veldheer continues to have mental errors, they can always stick Satele back in there and ride it out.