NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Bucky Brooks details his visit with the Oakland Raiders. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
The Raiders host training camp in Napa, Calif., in a picturesque setting right out of a vacation magazine. On the day of my visit, the Raiders welcomed 3,000 fans to watch them practice under clear blue skies and in perfect conditions.
1. Winning is in the details. The Raiders set NFL records for penalties and penalty yards in 2011. New coach Dennis Allen is attempting to change the culture in Oakland by getting his players to focus on the small details, on and off the field. They're held accountable for their punctuality in meetings and attendance at lunch and dinner in the dining hall. Such issues might appear trivial on the surface, but a lack of professionalism has certainly contributed to the Raiders' underachieving ways. More structure and a renewed emphasis on organization and discipline might help Allen finally rid the Raiders of the bad habits that have kept them from recording a winning season since 2002.
2. Darren McFadden is the key to the offense. After showing flashes of brilliance as a primary playmaker for Oakland during his first four seasons, the running back is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 option in the offensive game plan. He is expected to receive 25 or more touches per week on a variety of runs and receptions from multiple formations and alignments. I was impressed by McFadden's speed, explosiveness and athleticism in practice. He is a natural playmaker with the ball in his hands, and there is nothing that he can't do on the field. To take advantage of his versatility, the Raiders are deploying McFadden all over the place, including outside as a quasi-wide receiver. This will allow Oakland to capitalize on his speed and route-running skills in space against overmatched linebackers, creating the opportunity for big passing gains. In the running game, the Raiders are employing a zone-based scheme that will take advantage of McFadden's talents as a one-cut runner. He is already considered one of the NFL's most explosive backs, having recorded 29 runs of 20-plus yards on only 336 attempts over the past two seasons. If he can stay healthy, McFadden will produce fireworks in the Raiders' offense.
3. Carson Palmer is still trying to find his groove in Greg Knapp's offense. The Raiders are hoping their veteran quarterback can regain his Pro Bowl form under a new offensive coordinator. Part of that optimism is fueled by the implementation of Knapp's West Coast system that involves more quick, rhythm throws from the pocket. Palmer played in a variation of this scheme during his time at USC, but he is still struggling to master various parts of the offense in Oakland. He has been inefficient with some of the movement-based passing concepts in the playbook. Some difficulty was to be expected, given his limited athleticism, but Palmer's struggles with bootlegs could be a significant problem, due to their importance to the running game. (If he is not able to complete a high percentage of passes on the move, opponents will not respect the bootleg component of the Raiders' offense, making it tougher to run against loaded fronts.) Palmer has also had problems with his anticipation on timing routes. He repeatedly delivered the ball late to receivers coming out of their breaks, leading to a couple of blow-ups by defensive backs. If the Raiders are finally going to end their nine-year playoff drought in 2012, Palmer must quickly master the critical elements of Knapp's offense over the final four weeks of the preseason.
4. The defense is talented, but lacks an elite pass rusher and a shutdown corner. The Raiders have several intriguing pieces on the defensive side of the ball (defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Rolando McClain), but they don't have a single blue-chip pass rusher or corner. Clever scheming can allow a team to excel without quality personnel at those positions, but if they want to compete with the AFC's best, the Raiders need quality performances from defensive end Matt Shaughnessy and defensive backs Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell. Shaughnessy, in particular, must emerge as a credible pass rusher who can provide 10-plus sacks off the edge. He's shown glimpses of being a legitimate sack artist (notching 12 sacks in three seasons), but Shaughnessy needs to be more consistent on a weekly basis.
Spencer and Bartell are also under the gun to hold their own on the perimeter. Both were expected to start when they signed with the team during the offseason, but neither has stepped up as a potential shutdown corner. Spencer has struggled to stay close in coverage, while Bartell has been sidelined by a hamstring injury for most of camp. If the Raiders' veteran CB tandem doesn't turn things around soon, the defense will have a tough time handling the offensive juggernauts that loom in the AFC West.
THE NEW GUYS
Matt Leinart: One of the biggest surprises coming out of Raiders' camp has been Leinart's impressive play. His accuracy and ball placement have been superb, and he's demonstrated mastery of the offense, finding the second and third options in the route progression. Leinart's physical limitations likely keep him from being a long-term answer at quarterback, but his stellar play in camp suggests he could handle a two- or three-game stint as a fill-in for Palmer.
Juron Criner: The fifth-round draft pick has continued to build on the momentum created by his sensational play during offseason workouts. The rookie, who has routinely come down with acrobatic catches in practice, looks like he could be a No. 1 receiver in the near future. The Raiders currently lack a go-to guy on the outside, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Criner crack the starting lineup at some point this season.
"This is a team of the decades, like it says on our facility walls, and winning is the only thing that is acceptable. All of the mottos you have heard over the years from Al Davis and now that we are hearing from Coach Allen, we understand that we are expected to win and it's not about anything else. It's about winning."
1. DeMarcus Van Dyke has created quite the buzz in camp. Raiders officials have been impressed by the young defensive back's potential as a cover man, and they believe he could make a strong push for starter's minutes. Van Dyke was already one of the fastest players in the NFL, but his ability to quickly grasp the defense and subtleties of coverage have helped him make more plays on the ball. Given his progress over the course of the offseason and through the first week of training camp, Van Dyke might be in line for a significant role in his second year.
2. McClain looks primed for a big year. He is fit, trim and playing with more urgency at camp. Last season, McClain struggled in all aspects of the game, and poor conditioning affected his ability to hold up in coverage. This year, however, he has displayed better movement skills in drills, improving enough that he could remain on the field in nickel situations.
3. Terrelle Pryor still has quite a ways to go before he can contribute in the NFL as a quarterback, but he has impressed Raiders officials with his commitment and work ethic. He has put in long hours attempting to hone his skills as a passer. Pryor's accuracy and ball placement are still inconsistent, but he occasionally displays potential. His combination of size and athleticism will encourage the Raiders to be patient with his development.
The Raiders will be a more disciplined outfit under Allen, but the adherence to structure might not translate into more wins in 2012. The AFC West is one of the most competitive divisions in football, and I don't believe the Raiders have enough pieces on defense to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the AFC. I could see the Raiders finishing around .500, but I don't think a playoff appearance is in the cards for the Silver and Black.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks