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Raiders’ mix of youth and vets a winning formula

Among the qualities that the Raiders have desperately lacked in the last few years has been solid veteran leadership. Most of the players on this team are original Raiders who were drafted or acquired as undrafted free agents during these six seasons of futility. And while many of those players have grown as players, most of them have seen nothing but losing since becoming an NFL player.

It has been said ad nauseum that winning teams are built through the draft. But in the case of this Raider team, while most of them have steadily gotten better, they have lacked direction and leadership.

This team has been rebuilt from the ground up in these past few years. Sure there has been some emphasis on “winning now” but why would fans of any team want to shell out their hard earned money to buy tickets to see a team whose ownership has given up any hope that they will compete in the near future? There is something to be said for rebuilding while also trying to remain competitive. And while the competitive part of the equation has not held up, the rebuilding part certainly has.

Nearly every position on the field has a nice crop of young players along with a veteran presence who knows what it is like to win at the NFL level.

In the backfield, the Raiders have one of the NFL’s most promising young duos in Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. This group is anchored by Justin Fargas who provides heart, work ethic, and a team first attitude. At fullback, Oren O’Neal could be the next great Raider fullback. And with a mentor like Lorenzo Neal, the sky is the limit. Neal adds the kind of leadership and winning mentality that will carry throughout this entire team. His presence will prove to be invaluable even aside from his on-field contributions.

At the quarterback position there is of course the incredibly gifted young JaMarcus Russell. But from day one Russell was handed the keys to the castle and he has acted like there has been no threat of taking them away. From being the #1 overall pick, to a lengthy holdout, to pretending he is doing his job well while everyone else is the problem, to acting like the Paris Hilton of the NFL off the field (although hopefully there is no sex tape floating around ). Enter Jeff Garcia, a multiple Pro Bowl quarterback who makes teams into competitors the moment he steps on the field. He goes to a new team with the ambition to start and he works his ass off in practice trying to achieve that goal. Russell will most likely start but having Garcia in there to push him and show him how to be a leader should go a long way toward helping his development.

Along the offensive line, young incumbent starter Mario Henderson is looking to hold down the left tackle position. He was drafted as a project out of Florida State two years ago and while he has shown that he has the physical abilities to protect against the pass rush, he still needs constant guidance especially with the changes in offense. He also needs to greatly improve his run blocking skills. Having Robert Gallery, a former left tackle himself, lining up right next to him at left guard should keep Henderson on the right course (or left, as it were). Add tackle Khalif Barnes who, despite being reasonably young (27), has many years experience as the starting left tackle for a Jaguar team which has had a winning record during his tenure. In the middle, Samson Satele comes over from the Dolphins after blocking for their wildcat formation and their 11-5 season. He is backed up by 12 year veteran John Wade. On the right side the Raiders boast several players who can play guard or tackle. Original Raider (D06) Paul McQuistan returns from injury while the Raiders brought in two players from winning teams — Eric Pears from the Broncos, and Marcus Johnson from the Vikings.

The tight ends are led by young budding superstar Zach Miller who led the team in receptions and receiving yards last season. The Raiders then drafted Brandon Myers out of Iowa (The Hawkeyes) in the sixth round. He is said to be a blocking tight end who will free up Zach Miller to catch more passes. In between these two is nine year veteran Tony Stewart, a hard working player who also excels on special teams. Stewart isn’t flashy but he leads by example and he shows up every day to do some work.

The receiving corps is chock full of young speedy receivers with a lot of upside. This group is led by Jonnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens. Add the athleticism of rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy and there is no question in the area of youth. Then there is Javon Walker. While I would certainly put him in the category of veteran, I would not classify him as a leader. But what we don’t know is how good of a teacher he can be for these other young receivers. There is no doubt that he has seen success. He is a former Pro Bowler who had over a thousand yards in Green Bay as well as Denver before unfortunate events along with injuries derailed his career. The only other veteran added this off-season is Samie Parker who had marginal success on a bad Kansas City team. Wide receiver is one area where this team could stand to add another veteran presence but it seems that ship has sailed. Hopefully Walker can get back some of the prowess that made him into one of the best receivers in the NFL a few years ago.

In the secondary there are great, promising young players as well. Players like safeties Tyvon Branch and Mike Mitchell to go along with Michael Huff and last year’s starting safety Hiram Eugene. Eugene may not be a starting calibre safety but when it comes to work ethic, he is unmatched. You can bet that these young guys will not be letting up for a second because they know that Eugene will out work them and take that starting spot back if they don’t. Then the Raiders recently added six year veteran safety Keith Davis from the Cowboys. Davis supplanted Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams last season to start nine games at strong safety. Another couple of solid young players are corners Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt. The group is led by Nnamdi Asomugha who is unquestionably the best corner in the game, to say nothing of his demeanor and leadership qualities off the field of play. He is a model citizen who is well spoken and carries himself with unrivaled class and humility. There is no better mentor for the young players in this defensive backfield than him.

The linebackers have several original Raiders in Kirk Morrison, Thomas Howard, Ricky Brown, and Sam Williams. Williams is the veteran of the group but he has long been seen as one of Al Davis’ “scholarship players.” His biggest contributions come on special teams. Morrison is the closest to a leader the linebackers have at this point while Ricky Brown is certainly the hardest worker. Morrison is extremely well spoken and commands respect. And this team will need him to command that respect this season more than ever due to the influx of young linebackers (five rookies to be exact) acquired in the draft and afterward.

At defensive end the most intriguing player would be Trevor Scott. As a rookie last season, he tied for the team lead in sacks with five. It is said that he could be making Derrick Burgess expendable. The other side could be filled with former starter Jay Richardson or one of the rookie DE; either Matt Shaughnessy or Stryker Sulak. Which means that if Burgess is traded, Richardson with his two years experience would be the veteran of the group. Well, it’s a good thing the young guys are of strong character and work ethic.

Among the defensive tackles there is nothing but veterans — which could be a good thing with these guys because I am not sure I would want them to rub off onto a young promising player. Their bad habits should not be passed down. On the other hand, some youth really needs to be injected into this group, because right now we are looking at the lesser of the evils of Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren, Terdell Sands, and William Joseph. Enter FA DT Ryan Boschetti who comes over from the Redskins as the only DT brought into the fold this off-season for the Raiders. Tom Cable has spoken glowingly about Boschetti on numerous occasions. I hope he is right. Last year’s approach of trying to resurrect busts Kwame Harris and William Joseph was a disaster. Boschetti has been a below the radar guy who brings a new attitude.

We all know that there are a lot of great young players on this Raider team. But the infusing of veterans is what will bring out those young players’ potential and is the key to this team winning. And a winning attitude is a big part of what these vets bring with them. Only one of the players the Raiders acquired this off-season came from a team with a losing record last season — Khalif Barnes (the Jaguars were 5-11). Here is what the other players’ team records looked like:

Lorenzo Neal, Ravens: 11-5

Samson Satele, Dolphins: 11-5

Keith Davis, Cowboys: 9-7

Marcus Johnson, Vikings: 10-6

Jeff Garcia, Buccaneers: 9-7

Ryan Boschetti, Redskins: 8-8

Eric Pears, Broncos: 8-8

Whether each of these players was directly responsible for the success of his team is inconsequential. The point is that they are all used to winning. They expect to win, which is something the young and original Raider players have seen little of in their time here.

While neither the veteran leaders nor the young explosive players can do it alone, if you create the right mixture of the two and you have a formula for success — a formula for which Tom Cable seems to know the recipe.