Friday July 31st, 2009

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Raiders' camp in Napa Valley.

This could be the league's quietest camp opening. Instead of the normal thud that comes from large men running violently into each other after nearly five months of "non-contact" work, the Raiders have kicked off things at Redwood Middle School in Napa with four consecutive days of ... walkthroughs?

Basically, yes.

Coach Tom Cable, who saw the interim label removed from his job title in January, believes teams play faster and crisper when everyone knows what they're doing. So he's using the first eight practices (two per day) as "learning intensive" review sessions.

The Raiders won't go full speed or don full pads until Monday, when the Napa Valley will finally come alive with the sounds of contact.

"It's going to be crazy," said middle linebacker Kirk Morrison. "Guys are going to be chomping at the bit to hit something."

1. This is a critical year for quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Russell, whose work ethic and leadership skills were challenged by Cable in the offseason, is entering his third season and needs to prove he can be the player management envisioned when it drafted him No. 1 overall in 2007.

Russell struggled much of his first one-and-a-half seasons but flashed glimpses of promise last December when he threw two touchdown passes in each of his final three games after tossing only five in his previous 11 combined. He also completed more than 50 percent of his passes in each of those games after finishing beneath that mark in six of his previous 11 outings.

Since then, the team has brought in Paul Hackett as quarterbacks coach and hired Ted Tollner as passing game coordinator. Both are respected coaches, but their teachings won't mean anything if Russell isn't willing to put in the time to master their lessons.

If Russell falters early, there will be pressure to turn to veteran Jeff Garcia. Garcia has been with the team only a handful of months but he already has earned the respect of teammates because of his work ethic and professionalism. He's a first-to-arrive, last-to-leave guy.

Cable has made it clear Russell is the starter, but there's no denying Garcia's shadow threatens to engulf the massive Russell. The question is: What will Russell do about it?

2. If the Raiders are going to end six consecutive seasons of 11 losses or more, they're going to have to stop the run. The defense has ranked no higher than 22nd in that area since 2002 and finished 31st out of 32 teams the past two seasons after allowing an average of 159.7 yards a game in 2008 and 145.9 a game in 2007. Despite that, the Raiders failed to bring in significant reinforcements in the offseason.

Cable says the struggles were more about coaching than personnel, and he's counting on new coordinator John Marshall to do what predecessor Rob Ryan did not. The players contend the biggest difference between the two is Marshall demands more focus when it comes to gap responsibility and making sure players are in the right places at all times.

It'll be interesting to see if Marshall, who was the Seahawks' coordinator the past three seasons, has more autonomy than Ryan, whose game plans and play calls were said to be heavily influenced by owner Al Davis. The Raiders are sticking with their base 4-3 scheme and, again, will rely on the bump-and-run pass coverage that Davis prefers.

3. Defensive end Derrick Burgess is holding out for more money. He's due to make $2 million this season in the final year of the five-year deal he signed in 2005, but is making a tremendous gamble -- Oakland's ownership is not known for caving to players' demands. Arguably no owner holds grudges better than Davis (ask Jerry Porter and Marcus Allen). This doesn't figure to end well for Burgess, who can be fined daily.

Interestingly, there's no panic among players because they're accustomed to not having him around after he skipped the offseason workouts and held himself out of a mandatory minicamp because of a hamstring injury (wink, wink). Burgess had 27 sacks combined in 2005 and '06, but managed just eight and three-and-a-half the past two seasons. The good news: The signing of former Dallas end Greg Ellis, who has had eight or more sacks in five of the last six seasons, softens Burgess' possible absence.

Garcia is the one to watch. Fans already are debating over-unders for when he'll replace Russell as the starter. One fan's e-mail put it at seven games. I say five. If Russell doesn't play well the first four weeks against the Chargers, Chiefs, Broncos and Texans, it will be hard to send him out the next three weeks against the Giants, Eagles and Jets, who all should field elite defenses. The pressure to make a change will be greatest from within the organization. Question is: Will Davis be willing to make the change? It is Davis' call, right? (That's a rhetorical question.)

After signing a five-year deal that guarantees him $23.5 million, first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, a talented but inconsistent wide receiver at Maryland, joined his teammates and promptly dropped the first pass thrown to him.

Arguably no rookie will be more scrutinized than Heyward-Bey, who was the seventh player and first wideout drafted last April. The Raiders passed up higher-rated receivers in part because Davis was infatuated with Heyward-Bey's blazing speed. Heyward-Bey had a reputation for possessing slippery hands in college, and it could be a long year if he struggles while Michael Crabtree, the consensus No. 1 wideout prospect, excels across the bay in San Francisco -- if Crabtree ever signs, that is.

Wide receiver Javon Walker doing individual drills on the sideline. Slowed by injuries in three of the past four seasons, Walker appeared to be moving well during his workout. He says the knee that was operated on in the offseason -- unbeknownst to the team -- feels good and should keep him out only two or three more weeks.

Garcia says Walker is important to the passing game not only because he's a threat when healthy, but also because he's the only player at that position with legitimate NFL experience. "He has to lead by example," Garcia said. "He has to step in and step up."

1. Cable says the Raiders must improve their "discipline, team chemistry and throwing the ball" to reach their potential. In order, that means cutting down on penalties (Oakland ranked 30th with 109 last season), being more concerned with team goals than individual stats and averaging more than 148.1 yards passing per game, their league-low last season. As to the penalties, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly has to find a way to stay onside. He would have been flagged at least three times in Thursday's practices.

2. Cable says the game tapes from last season confirmed that the offense was noticeably better when 2008 first-round pick Darren McFadden was on the field. Cable, who will call plays, says he will do more to involve the speedy back as a runner, receiver and passer. That's fine with McFadden, who believes his increased comfort level with the offense should allow him to make more plays this year.

3. Cable is talking playoffs, but I don't see it. The Raiders should do cartwheels if they manage eight wins.

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