The roster was purged of familiar, underachieving veterans in the offseason, and there is a fresh, hip feeling about the organization. When training camp officially begins in Napa on July 26, a few questions should be addressed in the following weeks:
1. Can the newcomers win starting roles?
For the most part, yes. There will be competition at every position save for the backfield, offensive line, placekicker and long snapper, and the incumbents’ chances aren’t looking good.
Weakside linebacker Miles Burris, who started every game in 2012, is in a five-way battle for his job against Kevin Burnett, Nick Roach, Kaluka Maiava (all free agent imports) and Sio Moore (a rookie). Burris has decent odds to retain his role, but promising late-year starter Phillip Adams will likely lose his position at base-defense cornerback to Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter and/or D.J. Hayden.
Lamarr Houston is the only lock to start on the defensive line, as experienced additions Pat Sims, Vance Walker and Jason Hunter are assumed to plug the remaining slots. Charles Woodson is penciled in at free safety over April signee Usama Young.
At quarterback, new toy Matt Flynn has been named the number one, so it would take a self-destructive camp performance to forfeit the reins. Rod Streater or Jacoby Ford should be able to hold off Josh Cribbs for the vacant wide receiver spot across Denarius Moore.
Last (but far from the least), former Shane Lechler understudy Marquette King will face off with Chris Kluwe to punt for opening day. This fight may come down to the last week of the preseason, so get the popcorn ready.
2. How soon will the team mesh?
Not soon enough. With potentially 13 new starters (and nine on defense) when week 1 rolls around, there will likely be chemistry issues. How quickly head coach Dennis Allen and his staff can integrate the rookies, street signings and holdovers will play a pivotal role in developing trust sooner rather than later.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has made an open effort in the past two offseasons to add disciplined and selfless personalities, so hopefully players will instinctively pick up their similarities among one another. It is unrealistic to expect an immediate bond between 53 pro athletes, however, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a franchise in NFL history that found instant success after a major personnel overhaul.
3. Who is expected to bring the pass rush?
Wait, what? The Raiders are currently heading into camp without a reliable pass-rusher, which is a very disturbing sign for the defense.
Backup end Andre Carter is a sack master by reputation (he has 79 for his career), but he is 34 years old and injury-prone, which makes him an creaky cornerstone. Hunter has shown a nose for the quarterback in the past, but he has four sacks since 2010.
Sims and Walker are prototypical gap-stuffers, so all eyes will be on Houston, a former second round selection, to provide the necessary pocket-collapsing oomph. The bay area native hasn’t cracked five sacks in a season since he entered the league, but fortunately effort isn’t an issue. The overpowering Houston must work on stepping faster off the snap, as he often beats his man on the edge but only has takedowns to show for it.
Pressure will primarily have to be concocted again by defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who showed a willingness to blitz from all angles in 2012. If Philip Wheeler’s role was an inclination, Tarver will relentlessly send his linebackers after the passer, and we should expect Woodson to get in the mix as well.
Photo Credit: Tony Gonzalez / Raiders.com