Now that the main offseason spectacle of the NFL draft is over, the Oakland Raiders open their first minicamp this weekend with the new rookies in the fold. Here are the top spots to watch as the Raiders try to end their string of six consecutive double-digit loss seasons.
1. Left Tackle: Who protects the franchise?
Or more specifically, who keeps JaMarcus Russell upright long enough to actually use that cannon of an arm?
Incumbent Mario Henderson and offseason acquisition Khalif Barnes are the main contenders in this fight. Their battle at the top of the LT depth chart could determine the starter at right tackle as well, with the loser possibly supplanting incumbent Cornell Green.
Henderson played pretty well in the second half of the season after Lane Kiffin's departure and the subsequent lack of public criticism of Henderson's play. Barnes can give him a run for his money after starting 57 of his 60 games in Jacksonville.
But if he were truly the answer the Jaguars probably wouldn't have opted to let him go in favor of drafting Virginia OT Eugene Monroe (who the Raiders had a chance to draft).
The battle is just beginning, but if Henderson continues his improved play from last season, there is a good chance he could retain his spot at Left Tackle.
2. Wide Receiver: Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Michael Crabtree...?
They aren't on the same team, but this is inevitably the match-up that fans in the Bay Area will watch for the next five to 10 years.
Heyward-Bey has the tools to succeed, but he has to be consistent and that is a major question after going two games without a catch last year playing in the ACC at Maryland.
Again, in the ACC.
He will join a mass of similarly young but developing receivers including Johnnie Lee Higgins, Chaz Schilens, and fellow rookie Louis Murphy.
The other elephant in the room is veteran Javon Walker, one of the many disastrous big money signings in last year’s free agency. He is reportedly recovering from yet another surgery and will not practice until training camp.
This could be a blessing in disguise as it pushes the young receivers to the forefront and will hopefully speed up their development.
While most of the attention will be on Heyward-Bey and the starters, don’t discount Louis Murphy in a reserve role. He wasn’t the flashy big play receiver at Florida like Percy Harvin, but Murphy was solid and could contribute as a third or fourth receiver in his rookie season.
3. Safety: More controversial than safe?
The position has been in flux since Rod Woodson retired and no one has stepped up.
Michael Huff is going into his fourth year, which is probably his last year to try and avoid the bust label if people haven’t already slapped that on him. Second-year player Tyvon Branch has a chance to take over one of the starting spots now that he is healthy.
The player to watch is, once again, a controversial pick from this year’s draft. Michael Mitchell made headlines on draft day for basically never appearing in a headline before.
But Mel Kiper Jr. is mercifully locked underground in his cage until next year's draft.
If Mitchell can continue his role as a hard hitting strong safety, that could solidify at least one of the safety spots. Branch’s speed could be the determining factor at free safety since Huff has shown a disturbing lack of range with only one career interception.
4. Defensive End: An offensive lack of pass rush?
In 2008 the Raiders actually improved to 13th overall in sacks compared to 28th in 2007. But Kalimba Edwards, currently a free agent, and Trevor Scott tied for the team lead in sacks at a paltry five apiece.
Derrick Burgess is entering a contract year, but health is always the concern in his case.
The Raiders need third-year pro Jay Richardson to literally turn the corner and start getting to the quarterback. He has shown flashes and just needs to start being consistent game to game.
The Raiders drafted Matt Shaughnessy and Stryker Sulak in April to add some depth to the position. They need someone to step up or teams will go crazy and be tempted to sit back and actually throw the ball like the Carolina Panthers tried last year.
(This was after hearing Jake Delhomme, or someone on the Panthers, talk about wanting to test Nnamdi Asomugha. Seriously, why would you waste a possession like that? Of course Asomugha was going to pick off the pass thrown at Steve Smith.)
Coming off an 11-loss season there are definitely more positions that need improvement, but these are the biggest concerns for the Raiders.
It’s still too early to say with any certainty who will win, but if you have any predictions or theories I’d love to hear them. Personally, I think training camp is where players will start to show signs a la Chaz Shilens’ flashes last year.