Greg Trott/Getty Images
The Raiders hope to get a good look at JaMarcus Russell's strong right arm.


AFC West preview:

Broncos: Counting on Cutler | Chargers: Super contenders? | Chiefs: Rebuilding mode | Raiders: Can only go up

When you've averaged less than four wins a season for the past four years, saying you've improved doesn't necessarily mean much. That being said, the Raiders should be better this year. Not competitive even in the AFC's weakest division, but better.

JaMarcus Russell takes over at quarterback after a rookie season in which he played sparingly and not well (2 touchdown passes, 4 interceptions, 6 sacks). The No. 1 pick two years ago has tremendous size at 6-6 but rumor has it he was close to 300 pounds at some points last season and that won't cut it.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci : The awkwardness of Lane Kiffin's uncertain coaching future could prove troublesome, but it won't matter if rookie running back Darren McFadden lives up to his billing as a game-changing force and JaMarcus Russell can at least be consistently efficient as a first-year starting quarterback. Prediction: 5-11

Thomas George : Does coach Lane Kiffin last the season? Is quarterback JaMarcus Russell ready? Was the big offseason free agency spending spree worth it? Too many questions, not enough answers for the Raiders. Prediction: 6-10

Pat Kirwan : The Raiders will not drift far from the run offense and should be in games to the fourth quarter. Last year the defense couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead enough to see how much the Raiders had improved under Lane Kiffin. JaMarcus Russell will struggle at times; he is a year away from threatening the division. Prediction: 7-9

Gil Brandt : Second-year coach Lane Kiffin seems to be turning the team around, and the Raiders have some good young players on both sides of the ball. The key is improving a run defense that ranked 31st last season. Prediction: 6-10

» Raiders' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: Darren McFadden
The rookie has the skills and abilities to be one of the more well-rounded running backs in fantasy football. Remember the impact Adrian Peterson had as a rookie?

Faller: Javon Walker
Between his questionable knees, a passing game with an inexperienced quarterback and reports he wanted to retire, Walker's stock has taken an Enron-like fall.

» Fantasy draft kit | More fantasy

He has a cannon for an arm, a lot to learn and not many weapons around him to aid in the process. The receiving corps is nothing special with Ronald Curry and oft-injured Javon Walker as the mainstays. With the loss of backup Drew Carter in preseason, Oakland enters the year with a group of backup receivers who have caught a total of 7 passes. No help there for young Russell.

This year's No. 1 pick, running back Darren McFadden, should help out some however. He replaces demoted Justin Fargas, who remarkably rushed for over 1,000 yards behind the Raiders struggling offensive line. McFadden is a home run hitter, a back who has the size to be powerful and the breakaway speed to turn a short gain into a long one. Scouts feel he may have some issues, including running too high and thus being prone to injury. One thing is sure; he's a threat they didn't have before.

Defensively, Kiffin was believed to have quarreled with coordinator Rob Ryan. So they co-exist with a defensive unit that was exposed last year as far weaker against the run than anyone thought. Oakland was 31st in the league against the rush, giving up an average of 145.9 yards a game on the ground.

Throwing $50 million at nose tackle Tommy Kelly, who is coming off a torn ACL and had done nothing spectacular before his injury, won't solve that problem. It's not likely free agents Greg Spires and Kalimba Edwards will either.

Other than McFadden, the best addition was DeAngelo Hall, a Pro Bowl quality cornerback, who was acquired in a trade with the Falcons. Hall was available because he's had a lot of problems in Atlanta but now he's paired with Nnamdi Asomugha, which gives the Raiders a solid set of corners.

On the hot seat

Lane Kiffin. No Raiders coach since 2001 has lasted longer than two seasons. Bill Callahan and Norv Turner were fired after two seasons, while Art Shell lasted only a year.

Difference-maker

It better be JaMarcus Russell or they'll be no difference between this year and the previous four.

Hard road to hoe

Oakland needs to know in a hurry if it's improving and by the end of the season's first month it will have its answer. The Raiders play all three divisional opponents during that stretch as well as traveling to improving Buffalo. They have a bye after that and may need it.

Raiders will be better than you think if ...

The offensive line develops quickly enough to keep Russell upright and McFadden running.

Raiders will be worse than you think if ...

Injuries hit their starting wide receivers because even though they're nothing special there's little behind them but air at the moment.

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