Projected 53-man Roster

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With mandatory Mini-Camps wrapping up and Training Camp 6 weeks away, I thought I’d take a look inside my crystal ball to project who will make the final 53-man roster come week 4 of the preseason. Feel free to agree or disagree, as this is merely an educated speculation.

QB: Palmer, Leinart, Pryor
My take: Carson Palmer is the clear starter, but the battle for back-up QB could get intriguing if Terrelle Pryor continues to impress and improve.

RB: McFadden, Goodson, Jones
My take: This is a speedy, talented group. Darren McFadden is an All-Pro and rushing title-contender when healthy. Taiwan Jones may be the fastest player on the team. Mike Goodson is talented but needs to prove he can hang onto the rock.

FB: Reece, Schmitt
My take: Marcel Reece is a dangerous, versatile weapon who creates mismatches. Owen Schmitt is the classic blocking fullback the Raiders have been missing in recent years.

TE: Ausberry, Myers, Gordon
My take: This is a young, inexperienced group. Brett Myers is the front-runner due to experience and consistency, but David Ausberry is a unique athlete.

WR: Heyward-Bey, Moore, Ford, Criner, Streater
My take: This group needs to take a step forward. DHB, Denarius Moore, and Jacoby Ford all provide speed, but Juron Criner could be the big, possession target this offense needs to take the next step. Rod Streater impressed in mini-camps and could edge out the oft-injured Louis Murphy for the final receiver spot.

OT: Veldheer, Barksdale, Barnes, Hurd
My take: Jared Veldheer is a Pro Bowler in the making at LT. Hopefully Joe Barksdale will push the unimpressive Khaliff Barnes at RT, but his progression is slower than hoped. Sam Hurd makes the cut for depth, as he is versatile and familiar with the team (member of the practice squad last year).

C: Wisniewski, Parsons
My take: Wiz II played well in his limited time at center a year ago. His transition could make or break the cohesiveness of the Raiders offensive line. Alex Parsons provides depth, and has been taking first-team reps in mini-camp while Wisniewski heals up.

OG: Brisiel, Carlisle, Bergstrom, Nix
My take: Mike Brisiel will solidify the RG spot instantly. The aging Cooper Carlisle will be pushed by 3rd round pick Tony Bergstrom for the LG spot. Lucas Nix is a promising rookie who played tackle and guard during his time at Pitt.

DE: Houston, Shaughnessy, Crawford, Tollefson
My take: Lamarr Houston is primed for a big year. Matt Shaughnessy is back from a nasty shoulder injury and was sorely missed last year, especially in run defense. Free agent signing David Tollefson can get after the quarterback, while draftee Jack Crawford has the physical tools to contribute right away.

DT: Seymour, Kelly, Bryant, Bilukidi
My take: Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly both have Pro Bowl ability, but must make the leap from very good to dominant in order for this defense to progress. Desmond Bryant is a versatile, athletic big man who rushes the passer well. Christo Bilukidi is very raw but has two great teachers to help refine his talent.

OLB: Wheeler, Curry, Burris, Ihenacho
My take: Phillip Wheeler is a sure tackler who is solid against both the run and the pass. Aaron Curry needs to show his mental makeup can match his physical abilities. Burris is a promising, versatile linebacker who could contribute as a pass rush specialist. Ihenacho stays on as depth.

MLB: McClain, Goethel, Stupar
My take: Rolando McClain needs to perform well on the field this year, or he will be cut by new GM Reggie McKenzie. Off the field antics can be swallowed (to some extent) if the performance is there; so far in McClain’s short career, it has not been. Travis Goethel could be the starter if McClain misses time, and has shown some ability when healthy. 7th round pick Nathan Stupar offers depth at both linebacker positions, but should see most of his time in special teams.

CB: Bartell, Spencer, Van Dyke, Chekwa, Underwood
My take: Free agent acquisitions Ron Bartell and Shantae Spencer have plenty of NFL starting experience, but fell out of favor with their former teams mostly due to injury. Second year corners Demarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa both have the speed necessary for the position, but need more game experience to make improvements. Brandon Underwood is familiar with GM Reggie McKenzie from their time in Green Bay, and is a wild card of sorts after being buried on the depth chart there.

FS: Huff, Giordano
My take: Michael Huff simply needs to make more plays. Matt Giordano lead the Raiders in INTs with five last year, but has shown inconsistency in coverage.

SS: Branch, Mitchell
My take: Tyvon Branch is one of the most gifted safeties in the league, and will finally be in a defense which utilizes his abilities. Mike Mitchell, pegged as a huge reach when he was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL draft, needs to show he’s worthy of playing in the NFL.

K/P: Janikowski, Lechler LS: Condo
My take: The best special teams unit in the NFL. If they play to the level they’re capable of, all three should make the Pro Bowl.

State of the Raiders: Defense

This is the second of a three part series. My first post covered the offense; this post will cover the defense. Now that the free agency dust has more or less settle, the Raiders starters seem to be set. Last year, the defense was flat out bad. In fact, it’s one of the reasons Hue Jackson was replaced by the defensive-minded Dennis Allen. The 2011 Oakland Raiders were 29th in points against/game (27.1) and 29th in yards allowed (387.6). These numbers alone do not tell the whole story. If you, like me, watched the games, then you know the pain of watching the defense cave in the most important times of games. Against Buffalo and Detroit the team lost on last minute drives. In five of the other six losses, the defense never even showed up to the game (I blame the week 7 loss to the Chiefs on the 7 turnovers committed by quarterbacks). Yet, a new scheme is coming to Oakland, and there still exists quite a bit of talent, especially on the defensive line. Here is a breakdown of each positional group, along with a letter grade.

Defensive Line

This group is made up of a wealth of talent and experience. Richard Seymour is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and has become a true leader in the locker room. Fellow DT Tommy Kelly had numbers similar to Seymour’s, and some could argue he was deserving of a nod to Hawaii as well. Defensive end Lamarr Houston has impressed so far during his two year career, and has rare physical ability. DE Matt Shaugnessy has a clean bill of health, and is an above-average starter with a high motor. Desmond Bryant offers versatility in reserve as both a pass-rushing DT or a run-stuffing DE. The Raiders are also reportedly interested in former Giants defensive end David Tollefson, who would offer some much needed pass-rushing abilities. Versatility is the key with the defensive line. If Dennis Allen does implement a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, he’ll have plenty of toys up front to play with. This unit can pressure the quarterback and stop the run, but needs the rest of the team to improve to see its true potential unfold. Grade: A-

Linebackers

Going into the 2011-12 season, I knew we had one of the largest 4-3 linebacker cores in the league. Yes, they were big and fast. But I had my doubts – could they cover? The resounding answer was no, no they couldn’t. Aaron Curry brought more speed and aggressiveness, but still lacks the football IQ and coverage skills necessary of a Will linebacker. Rolando McClain consistently proved to be… inconsistent. Aside from a mid-season arrest, McClain’s season was full of incorrect angles, poor coverage, and over-aggression against the run. He is very talented and was a leader at Alabama, so it is disappointing to see him acclimate to the NFL so slowly. Incumbent starting Sam linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was cut, but offered little more than pass rush. In fact, I find him to be highly over-rated; he’s never tallied more than 69 tackles in a season, despite playing in all but one game for his teams during his six-year career. To put that in perspective, free agent acquisition Philip Wheeler scored 80 tackles in only 11 starts last year. While not the pass rusher Wimbley is, Wheeler is better both in coverage and against the run, and should bring in some much-needed discipline.

This unit is in serious need of depth. Travis Goethl is a serviceable player but has durability concerns. Practice squader Carl Ihenacho is the only other linebacker currently on the roster. Yikes. Look for at least two more players to be brought in for depth and special teams. There’s lots of talent here, but Dennis Allen will need to bring along Curry and McClain (especially) if there will be any improvements from last year. Grade: B-

Secondary

Where do I begin? This unit was so bad that both incumbent starting cornerbacks were cut. They were so bad, Matt Giordano got significant playing time. I think Calvin Johnson just scored again. All kidding aside, a big goal for GM Reggie McKenzie this offseason was to overhaul a broken coverage unit. Stanford Routt’s silly contract was terminated. Chris Johnson was sent packing as well. This left 2011 draft picks Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke as the only NFL-level talent (at corner) on the team. Reggie McKenzie, however, saw an inexpensive solution: enter Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer. Both are big, fast, and experienced cover corners. While not elite talents, they come on-the-cheap, and will at least offer more consistency than last year’s unit. McKenzie pulled from his Packers days by adding CBs Pat LeeĀ  and Brandon Underwood, but neither should see much playing time aside from special teams duties.

The safety positions are set in stone, with incumbent starters Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch giving it another go. My hope is that both thrive in Dennis Allen’s more aggressive/less man-oriented defense. Branch is a stud, and it will be interesting to see how a true defensive mind uses him. Huff will need to be better in coverage and make more plays, or his bloated contract could be ended at year’s end. Talent-wise, this unit is about the same on paper. Can a new scheme make that big of a difference? Let’s hope so. Grade: C+

Raiders Off-season Program Begins

Today marks the beginning of the Dennis Allen & Reggie McKenzie era. As part of the new CBA, the Raiders are one of six teams allowed to start their off-season training Monday. The rest of the league starts April 16. This will be the time for Allen to put his mark on the team, both in coaching style and defensive scheme. Mini-camps and OTAs also allow new players to form chemistry and establish roles in the locker room.

Potential Free Agent Options

Now that the Raiders’ cap situation is looking a little better, here are some guys I think Oakland should look at when free agency opens. There won’t be much cap space to work with, but, with no other free agents, the team has to lock up for big money, they can spend any extra money on the following players.

Justin Forsett, RB

I fully expect Michael Bush to leave Oakland for a starting gig. While I think he’d make a better change of pace back, he filled in serviceably enough for teams to think he’s the second coming of Michael Turner as a feature back. If that’s the case, we’re going to be looking for a running back to take carries from Darren McFadden. Forsett is a talented back who’s not great at any one thing but is good at most facets of the game. He’s been stuck behind Marshawn Lynch and Leon Washington, so his legs are fresh. McFadden is an All-Pro talent with major injury concerns, so it’s important to have a pro waiting in the wings. He would come on the cheap, too, likely garnering the veteran’s minimum.

Chris Myers, C

Myers would be a big haul for the Raiders. There are one to two holes in the middle of the offensive line, and Myers would fill one of these more than adequately. He’s familiar with Greg Knapp’s zone blocking system, and was a key part of Arian Foster’s success the past two years. He would allow Jared Veldheer and Stefen Wisniewski to gel next to each other, while offering a veteran presence on an otherwise young offensive line. Myers is a ZBS guy only, which should keep his cost reasonable. The Raiders could easily clear enough salary cap to sign him to a 3-4 year deal worth $3-4 million per.

James Farrior, ILB

Farrior may be 37, but he’s still a productive NFL starter. With the Raiders likely switching to a 3-4 defense, his years of experience would really help out a young linebacker core. Even if he’s only playing two downs, he’ll offer support against the run and a veteran locker room presence for a low price.

Tracy Porter, CB

Stanford Routt was released and Lito Sheppard is awful. These are the two starting cornerbacks for a 29th ranked pass defense. The Raiders need talent in the secondary; Chris Johnson is aging and not worth his contract, while Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke are unproven and still learning the position. Porter could be had at the cheap if he clears the first round of free agency unsigned. He has experience with Dennis Allen, and played for a winner in New Orleans.

Marcus Trufant, CB

Trufant is another secondary option for Oakland. This former pro-bowler has not been himself in recent years, due to injury and aging. But he’s a definite upgrade from Lito Sheppard or Chris Johnson. What’s more, he’d come at a very reasonable price, and his size and ball skills translate well to Dennis Allen’s zone-based scheme.