Raiders' training camp is located in Napa Valley in the center of wine country. The Napa Valley Marriott houses the Raiders during camp, and the practice fields are on the backside of the hotel adjacent to a middle school. The weather is absolutely beautiful with temperatures in rising into the 80's without a cloud in sight. The camp is closed to the public, but the camp is full of players' loved ones as the team host Family Day during the evening session.
1. JaMarcus Russell is growing up. The Raiders' franchise quarterback has made significant strides as a passer, and his burgeoning confidence is reflected in the improved accuracy he has displayed throughout this camp. Instead of attempting to force throws into tight windows as he did a season ago, Russell is quickly identifying the second or third option in the route progression, and his willingness to take check down shows that he has a better grasp of the offense. "The more reps that I get, the more comfortable that I become in the offense," said Russell.
Young quarterbacks often underestimate the importance of keeping the offense in manageable situations, so Russell's increased reliance on his underneath receivers shows that he is beginning to mature into better decision maker in the pocket. Though offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will surely unleash more deep balls this season to take advantage of Russell's extraordinary arm strength, the Raiders' offense has a chance become more balanced due to their young signal caller's growth.
In addition, Russell has grown into the role of being a team leader. After missing most of training camp last season, Russell spent the offseason earning the respect of his teammates by diligently working in the weight room and film room. "I've been trying to show my teammates that I'm committed," said Russell. "We worked together all offseason, and I think that by being around every day I've been able to earn the respect of my guys."
2. The defense will have to lead the way. If the Raiders are to realize their playoff aspirations, their defense will have to blaze the path to the postseason. Though the 22nd-rated defense allowed 4.8 yards per carry on the ground and surrendered 20 runs over 20 yards last season, the unit should be vastly improved, and has a chance return to the ranks of the elite due to the offseason additions of DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson. As a two-time Pro Bowler, Hall will team with Nnamdi Asomugha to form arguably the top cornerback tandem in the league. And Wilson's presence in the box allows Michael Huff to move to back into his natural free safety position. Although those moves appear designed to shore up the Raiders' pass defense, they actually allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the freedom to play an assortment of eight-man fronts in conjunction with bump-man coverage to clog running lanes.
The unit is also experimenting with more blitzes and pressures to take advantage of athleticism of linebackers Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison. The duo has consistently made plays the past two seasons, but a more aggressive pressure package should catapult them into stardom. Howard, who finished with six interceptions -- including two returned for scores -- has the speed to be a difference maker as a rusher while Morrison's instinctive nature at the position should be enhanced by playing in a more aggressive scheme.
Despite the good vibes emanating from the defense, the unit still has major question marks along the interior line. Gerrard Warren, Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands have enticing potential, but each has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career. Although they have been solid during camp, the team has to get good production from their interior defenders to take advantage of the outstanding talent that exists on the defensive side of the ball.
"We have great players," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. "We just need to get them on the same page, so that they play great."
3. Something is not right about Javon Walker. The Raiders' marquee free agent signee has looked sluggish throughout camp, and reports have surfaced in recent days about Walker contemplating retirement. "He talked to me, and expressed that it was something that he was thinking about doing," said Kiffin.
After wrestling with the decision for a couple of days, Walker decided to stick with football, and practiced twice during double days for the first time on Saturday. Though he has yet to show the explosiveness that made him a Pro Bowler in 2004, Kiffin was encouraged that Walker took additional reps during the sessions and is hopeful that he will eventually work through the funk that he has been in since camp opened. "He wanted to come out and get some work in," said Kiffin. "He was not working as hard as he had been, so it was good to see him come out and work on his skills."
After watching Walker in two practices, there is no way that he is ready to handle the physical or mental stress of being the Raiders' "go-to-guy". He may regain his confidence and explosiveness during the preseason, but I wouldn't have high hopes of seeing Walker as a major contributor this season.
The Raiders knew that they were getting an upgrade at safety when they inked Gibril Wilson to a six-year, $39 million contract during the offseason, but they didn't know that they were acquiring a player with exceptional leadership qualities. "I really like that attitude that he brings to the huddle," said Kiffin. "He is kind of becoming the vocal leader of our defense."
Wilson gives the team a sure tackler in the secondary, and his versatility allows defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to play man coverage against the premier tight ends (Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez) within their division. In addition, Wilson brings championship experience that will be invaluable to a team that has not sampled success in recent years. "I think the little knowledge that I have will help," said Wilson. "I think that I can show them how to prepare well, and do all of the little things that will help us become a great team."
The key to the Raiders' success will be getting off to a quick start, but the schedule is littered with three divisional games during the first month. After the bye in Week 5, the team has a favorable middle season stretch that includes winnable games against the Falcons and the Dolphins. It will be critical for them to gain ground during that part of their schedule, as it gets tough for the team down the stretch with games against the Chargers, Patriots, Texans and Bucs to close the season.
Watching Lane Kiffin talk to his entire team prior to a "move-the-ball" drill during the second session of practice. The team had been a little sloppy during the early portion of the practice, and Kiffin immediately assembled his guys to encourage them to pick up the tempo of the drill. Though the discussion didn't last longer than two minutes, it was apparent by the way the team responded with more energy and better focus, that Kiffin still has the ear of his troops. Given all of the speculation that surrounded the young coach during the offseason, it was impressive to see his team respond positively to his leadership, and is a telling sign that things may be on the rise in Oakland.
• The Raiders have two stars in the making in linebackers Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison. The duo came into their own last season, but the team's dismal record caused their play to go largely unnoticed by outsiders. Howard, who racked up 95 tackles to go with his team-leading six interceptions, displays outstanding speed and athleticism while flying to the ball. Morrison, who led the team in tackles for the third consecutive season, is more of a "banger" between the tackles, and he quietly racks up production with little fanfare. If the Raiders' defense experiences the resurgence that many predict, expect these two to play prominent roles in the turnaround.
• Don't be surprised if Darren McFadden reprises his role as the multi-purpose threat that made him a star at Arkansas. The Raiders used an array of formations with that had the speedster line up at several positions, including quarterback. The team obviously wants to take advantage of his unique skill set, and is attempting to get him the ball in a number of ways.
• Unheralded receiver Todd Watkins has been the talk of the camp, and is making a strong run at a roster spot. Watkins, who originally impressed Lane Kiffin as a collegian at BYU by hauling in four receptions for 94 yards in a 42-10 loss to Southern Cal in 2004, has been catching everything in sight, and displays enough to speed to be a capable deep threat in the Raiders' vertical offense.
• Ronald Curry looks great after spending the offseason diligently hitting the weights. Curry lost almost 10 pounds during the offseason, and looks noticeably quicker getting out of his routes. "This is the best that I've seen Curry since I've been here," said Kiffin. With Javon Walker struggling to establish himself in the line up, Curry is poised to be the Raiders' top receiving threat again this season.