OAKLAND — Strange city. Strange team.
Although the Raiders rested 18 starters in their preseason finale Thursday night, enabling observers to glean little of what we will see in the opener against the Titans, I am starting to wonder if I didn't jump the gun a bit.
See, I picked the Raiders to beat the Chargers in the AFC West. I'll say it again: I picked the Raiders, owners of double-digit-loss seasons every year since 2003, to topple the Chargers, division champs five of the past six seasons.
I am not backing down. I made this choice and will stick with it.
But I am concerned for one major reason: depth.
The Raiders have, I believe, the starting talent to win 10 or more games. But that's if they are healthy. Right now, they are a little chewed up.
Starting QB Jason Campbell didn't dress Thursday night but did warm up the receivers on the field before the game, easing concerns about his thumb for the opener against the Titans. Campbell also had suffered a neck stinger.
"Right now, I can't talk about the injuries or anything," Campbell said, citing head coach Tom Cable's mandate to remain hush on ailments, "but come the Tennessee game, I'll be ready."
RB Michael Bush? Likely not. He suffered a Bennett's fracture in his thumb that likely will leave him out for the first four weeks of the season at a minimum. Against the Seahawks, Michael Bennett started slowly against the Seahawks but eventually ground away for 92 yards rushing on 25 carries against second- and third-team defensive players, some of whom will be the next assistant managers at your local IHOP.
But Bennett is just a third back. This means Darren McFadden, who has yet to consistently show he can be a lead back, must step up in the first month of the season.
Bush had looked solid in the preseason, and his loss will hurt, whether or not McFadden can raise his game. Bush looked to be a perfect fit in Hue Jackson's offense, which wants to pound and grind in order to open up the passing game.
And speaking of that passing game, there's the matter of who will be catching passes from Campbell and who will be snapping him the ball. Not just in Week One, but for the course of the season.
WR Louis Murphy and TE Zach Miller are two of his preferred targets. Darrius Heyward-Bey might be that third guy if he's finally ready to take a step up. One of the few starters to play Thursday, he had a pretty 34-yard reception, giving a glimpse of his rare athleticism. But like McFadden, the proof is in the pudding.
"I've got to do my job," Heyward-Bey said. "The bottom line is that we have to win.
"I just went back to work early (this offseason), worked my butt off, and I know it's going to pay off."
Even if Heyward-Bey steps up as a deep threat, this unit could use some help with Chaz Schilens out indefinitely. Expect every receiver on the trade block, from T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Patrick Crayton, to hear the Raiders attached to his name over the coming week.
Samson Satele, who was nursing an ankle injury, is the would-be center, but Cable could opt to go with rookie Jared Veldheer instead. The scary part isn't that the third-round pick played last season at Grand Valley State; it's that he only has played center, really, for the better part of a month. It's a pivotal position for a shaky offensive line's success.
Defensively, there's a lot to like. The front seven has dominant potential, and all-world CB Nnamdi Asomugha is one of the better cover men around. But the rest of the group brings questions.
Starting CB Chris Johnson, who might have lost his job to Stanford Routt, was repeatedly torched Thursday, his first action back from an ankle injury. The team is at least counting on Johnson to play in the nickel defense, which will be out on the field a great deal, but his Thursday performance suggested he might not be ready to be counted on.
"Obviously, there were some struggles with Chris," Cable said. "We'll just go look at it, and we'll make some decisions."
Another Chris Johnson — the Titans' 2,000-yard rusher — looms in nine days. He has set his sights on the unthinkable mark of 2,500 yards this season, looking to tee off in the opener against a Raiders run defense that was pretty awful last season and one that, while supposedly improved, allowed an 89-yard run to Bears RB Matt Forté and a 49-yard run to 49ers RB Frank Gore in the preseason.
We'll assume that MLB Rolando McClain is ready for prime time. We'll assume DT Richard Seymour is healthy and ready to play. We'll assume that FS Michael Huff won't continue to whiff on tackles in the open field.
Yes, there is some intriguing talent and depth at safety, where Mike Mitchell — the former Reach of the Century in last year's draft, according to many — has begun to assert his hard-hitting style and seventh-rounder Stevie Brown continues to impress with heady plays. Mitchell, who is known as the "Angriest Man in America" amongst his teammates, blew up Seahawks RB Justin Forsett (his former Cal teammate) on a play that had the sparse Oakland-Alameda Coliseum crowd juiced. It was a great hit, perhaps a display of what he can bring to this team.
But will it all be enough? Do the Raiders have all the pieces, not just the paper starters, to make a run this season?
"I think we do have the depth," Bennett said. "You didn't see it all tonight. Some guys were rested. We know what we have shown in training camp, and there's a lot to like here. There are a lot of reasons why we think we can make something happen."
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