NAPA, Calif. -- Raiders safety Charles Woodson doesn't believe in taking the scenic route. He wants to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, not only on the football field but also in conversation. Consider his response when asked whether he pays attention to reports that his game has slipped in recent years.
Many players would respond with verbal detours. They'd rather give out the password to their bank account than publicly acknowledge an outsider's criticism. Not Woodson, who is returning to his Oakland roots after seven seasons with the Packers. He goes straight at the subject as if it were an unprotected quarterback and he was coming on a blindside blitz.
"I read all of it," the 16-year veteran says, smiling. "Basically they say I can't do it. They say I haven't been getting it done for the last three years. I've read a lot of things like that -- that I've been declining every year, which is funny because I was just All-Pro two years ago.
"But it's all good because when I turn on the film or I look at me on the football field, no one plays faster than me. You can go ask coaches in Green Bay, as far as how I played before breaking my collarbone last year. Ask them who played faster than me, and I don't think they would say anybody. Maybe Clay Matthews -- Clay is a bad boy. But, nah. All the stuff they're saying just ain't true."
Woodson is not alone in his determination to prove himself a still-viable force. The Raiders, one year after allowing the third-most offensive points in the NFL, could end up fielding as many as nine new defensive starters, each of whom was given up on by his former club. The unit might look like the Land of Misfit Players to some outsiders, but within the locker room the focus is on opportunity.
"The organization brought in some hungry guys," says Woodson, who turns 37 in October. "They're guys who signed one-year or two-year deals who can come out here, show out, then next year be looking at something [more lucrative] here or elsewhere."
Even in a league where roster turnover is common, what the Raiders have done is eye-popping. According to Football Outsiders, it's only the second time in the modern era that a team has changed as many as nine primary defensive starters in one year. The only other time it was done was in 2002, by ... the Raiders, who also made nine changes.
That Oakland team advanced to the Super Bowl (where it was routed by the Bucs), but no one is expecting the past to be prologue. The Raiders haven't had a winning season in 10 years, and one Las Vegas sports book lists their over/under at 5.5 victories. To even have a shot at that figure, the defense must be better than it was a year ago, when it surrendered 18 touchdowns on the ground (which tied for third-most in the league), 28 scores through the air (more than all but seven other teams) and managed just 25 sacks (second-fewest in the league).
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Enter tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker, end Jason Hunter, linebackers Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter and Woodson. The Raiders also used a first-round pick on cornerback D.J. Hayden and a third-rounder on linebacker Sio Moore, both of whom could challenge for starting jobs as rookies.
The issue is how best to turn nine new starters into a cohesive unit. "The challenge is these guys really understanding ways that guys are going to play the game and really get a feel for what everybody else is seeing on the football field," says coach Dennis Allen. "It's really about getting 11 guys to play together and understand what their role is within the scheme. The thing we've got is that we have some veteran players, who understand how to do the job. The bad thing with that sometimes is that guys can be set in their ways. The good thing is, this is a group of guys that is eager and willing to do it the Raider way. That's why I like this team."
What Allen also likes is the players' willingness to practice. It was a struggle at times last season to get some veterans to consider practice as important as he did in his first year as a head coach. In fact, there were times early in training camp when newcomers could be seen grimacing from aches and bruises, strains and sprains, yet they refused to leave the field.
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, meanwhile, is pleased to have a group of veterans who are capable of making adjustments on the fly. "You can talk to them about subtle things and you can talk to them about major things," he says. "It's not too big for them. The personalities are big, too. Roach is smart, a little bit funny, he wants to do it right, and he likes solving things in the moment. Communicating with those players is really what you love about coaching."
Coaches are also enamored of talented veterans who are motivated, such as Woodson. He commands your attention when he's on the field. There is a suddenness when he breaks on the ball that few players possess. Woodson makes the game look easy even when it's difficult, as the rookie Hayden has learned. As Hayden walked off the field after a recent practice, sweat pouring down his face, multiple sets of shoulder pads and helmets in his hands, he shook his head at what he had just witnessed from Woodson.
"I couldn't even believe it," Hayden said. "I don't even think he was sweating. He's just so smooth."
"I told him I'm a machine," says Woodson, who breaks into a deep laugh.
One thing Woodson won't laugh about is his desire to show he's still a defensive force. And once again he gets straight to the point. "I ain't going to lie, it's kind of hurtful to have people taking shots at you for whatever reason, or just because you're 35, 36 or going on 37," he says. "But it's all good. I read it and put in my mental bank."
Like his new teammates, he hopes to collect interest beginning in Week 1.
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