Raiders are the ultimate sleeper team in '06


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Jan 22, 2006
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Raiders are the ultimate sleeper team in '06
By Connor J. Byrne on May 11, 2006 01:19 AM

"He brought back Art Shell? Wow. What in the world is Al Davis thinking?"

Words like that have been uttered from the mouths of thousands of football fans since owner Al Davis elected to bring Art Shell back as the team's head coach this offseason. Shell was extremely successful in the early '90s with the Raiders, leading the team to a terrific 54-38 regular season record, while making three playoff appearances. On a team that has lacked discipline under its last two coaches, Bill Callahan and Norv Turner, the fiery, respect-demanding Shell will be an outstanding addition.

Because of the Shell hiring and some other underlying factors, many are viewing the Raiders as just another pushover in 2006. However, when looking closer, it'd be wiser to view Oakland with cautious optimism. Not only do they have tremendous weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense also appears greatly improved.

Offensively, the Oakland Raiders upgraded the quarterback position this offseason simply by releasing stone-footed veteran Kerry Collins. The 33-year-old moves with such slothfulness that he's capable of making an animal of the bovine species appear swift; to put it in simpler terms, he runs slower than a cow. Well, luckily for Oakland fans, his weekly follies and inexcusable gaffes will no longer give them ulcers.

Instead, the ulcers, or hopefully smiles, will be provided by new veteran quarterback Aaron Brooks. The ultra-talented, yet oft-foolish Brooks moves much faster than Collins, so that's no longer a worry for the Raiders. However, his decisionmaking leaves a lot to be desired. If he can curb the poor decisions and win the job in training camp and preseason over second-year man Andrew Walter, the Raiders may have something extremely positive on their hands at the quarterback position. Obviously, nothing positive has come from Raiders quarterbacks since the days of Rich Gannon.

Whoever ends up being Oakland's quarterback next season shouldn't have much difficulty, since the Raiders' offensive weaponry is equivalent to a small military base. Rather than missiles, the Raiders bring star receiver Randy Moss and his three friends; Jerry Porter, Doug Gabriel and Ronald Curry. Unfortunately since Porter has failed to get along with Shell, he may be getting the job done elsewhere next season. Even without Porter, the Raiders' receivers appear terrific.

LaMont Jordan, Oakland's running back, is one of the most overlooked starters in football. Last season he became among the best dual-threats in the league, running for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns, while receiving 70 passes for a grand total of 563 yards. If the 230-pound bowling ball can improve his rushing totals next season, Oakland will have themselves an elite all-around back.

The Raiders' offensive line also appears relatively presentable, since they drafted the overlooked third-rounder Paul McQuistan to likely play right tackle or guard. The line may hinge on the development of left tackle Robert Gallery, though, since he has been somewhat shaky at times during his two-year career. Center Jake Grove could also play an important role next season, as he plays the position viewed as the quarterback of the O-Line. The three youngsters will have two of the finest ever offensive linemen coaching them as well. Shell, a Hall of Fame tackle, hired former St. Louis Rams legend Jackie Slater, also a Hall of Famer, to co-coach the offensive line. Joining Slater is Irv Eatman, who played 14 seasons of pro football as a lineman in the USFL and NFL. Therefore, the Raiders' young linemen probably have the best guidance possible, so there's no excuse for not getting the job done. Plus, not having to deal with an ornery Shell should inspire the trio to perform up to par.

On the defensive front, tackle Warren Sapp is the only name that truly jumps out to the casual football fan. However, don't discount linemates Tommy Kelly and Lance Johnstone, or pass rushing dynamo Derrick Burgess, who quietly led the league with 16 sacks last season. Linebacker Kirk Morrison, a rookie in 2005, piled up 116 total tackles, so he should continue furthering his development next season. Rookie linebackers Thomas Howard and Darnell Bing are also expected to provide major assistance to the Raiders' defense, and veteran Danny Clark will continue making an impact.

The secondary is the $64,000 question for the Raiders' defense in '06. Youngsters Nnamdi Asomugha and Fabian Washington were often eaten alive by big-time receivers last year, and Oakland hopes that will cease next season. There's not much depth at the cornerback position, either, since second-year man Stanford Routt will compete for the nickel job with aged veterans Tyrone Poole and Duane Starks. Poole has played in just six games over the last two seasons, and Starks has been a shell of his former self, so that appears as a major problem.

For the first time in awhile, the safety position should be solid in Oakland. Stuart Schweigert, the free safety, vastly improved in 2005, his sophomore season. That improvement should continue into next year, which means the Raiders will be all set at free safety. The strong safety position is upgraded vastly with seventh overall draft pick Michael Huff. The former Texas Longhorn, who has 4.36 speed, will be a major improvement over ex-starter Derrick Gibson, who has been a first round bust since his debut in 2001.

So, what can be taken from this manifesto? Well, for those doubting the Shell-led Raiders in 2006, it's not the best idea in the world. They'll be much more disciplined, better at quarterback, and better on the offensive line, which should be enough to lead the offense to new heights. However, as always, the defense is a question mark in Oakland. If it can be at least better than average, the Raiders could compete for a playoff spot next year.

Playoffs? Oakland? That hasn't been in the same sentence since the days of Gannon to Rice in 2002. Nowadays, it's 2006, and it's Brooks to Moss. Watch out, AFC West. The Raiders are no longer a joke of Seinfeldian proportions. Instead, they're to be taken seriously.
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