Davis' different approach leads to Raiders' best draft in years

With the Oakland Raiders orchestrating their most recent draft as if they had a plan, the watercooler joke was that Al Davis must not have been in the war room.

Had Davis been in there, you would think, with his affinity for size and speed, that offensive tackle Bruce Campbell and wide receiver Jacoby Ford -- two of the most impressive athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine -- would have been Oakland's first two picks, not linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackle Lamarr Houston, respectively.

Turns out Davis was actually in the room coordinating with coaches and scouts. Campbell and Ford were taken in the fourth round, more realistic and valuable slots for players who might not be every-down players as rookies.

"He (Davis) was directing things," a Raiders source explained to me.

Davis has gone against convention the past few seasons, like drafting wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall in 2009 when Michael Crabtree -- who went to the 49ers at No. 10 -- was there for the taking.

Ironically, the player Davis selected No. 1 overall in 2007, quarterback JaMarcus Russell, wasn't criticized as much then as he is now -- which is why Davis' boldest move of the weekend was almost as surprising as the savviness the Raiders displayed throughout the draft.

Davis, according to the team source, had no problem giving the all-clear to acquire quarterback Jason Campbell in a trade with the Redskins. Davis has been Russell's biggest (and based on conversations and actions of players and coaches, maybe his only) supporter within the organization. Consider that finished with Campbell in the house. Russell could still be with the team when it opens minicamp this weekend, as there is talk of a quarterback competition, but all indications are that Russell's days in Oakland are numbered.

To that point, think there is someone coaching USC's football program right now who isn't getting at least a tiny kick out of all this? Lane Kiffin was fired by Davis during the 2008 season, and at a news conference outlining his reasons for dumping Kiffin, Davis said that differences between coach and owner started when Kiffin argued against drafting Russell.

In what could be repeated many times should Russell be released by Oakland, here are a few lines from a letter Davis wrote to Kiffin and then read to media at the news conference announcing the coach's termination: "I realized that you did not want to draft JaMarcus Russell. He is a great player. Get over it."

By trading for Campbell, Davis seems to have gotten over it too.

It took a lengthy holdout during Russell's wasted rookie season, more than $30 million, three seasons of continued losing, and broken morale in the locker room to realize that Russell wasn't the next Jim Plunkett. It's a painful and expensive reminder of the damage that can result by whiffing on the first overall draft pick, especially if it's a quarterback.

Which leads us to...

The Rams' plan for Bradford

The Raiders and St. Louis Rams are two of 24 teams staging minicamps this weekend (full schedule), a routine three-day workshop for players after the draft. Most of those who don't crank things up this weekend will get it going the following weekend.

While the Raiders are trying to figure out what to do with their former No. 1, the Rams have set the agenda for quarterback Sam Bradford, who they selected first in this year's draft. He will take the majority of snaps this weekend because this is a rookie minicamp for draft picks and free agents. When the vets show up for OTAs and full-team minicamps, Bradford will work behind A.J. Feeley, according to coach Steve Spagnuolo.

"Sam's the guy taking the snaps, and that should work to his advantage," Spagnuolo said. "He'll get used to the surroundings on the practice field, what the schedule is with coaches, those types of things. There's going to be a learning curve that's eased a little by not having the pressure of the eyeballs of veterans on you."

The franchise's media relations, marketing and community relations departments have also mapped out agendas for Bradford. Those will be outlined for him over the next few weeks. He will be called upon to make a ton of appearances, help with sales and do several interviews over the next few weeks. There will be a point not too far off when that gets cut off, which is when it becomes all about football.

"Football is the No. 1 focus, but he understands that the responsibility that comes with being the No. 1 overall pick and the quarterback," Spagnuolo said. "Sam and I talked about what's best for Sam. For Sam Bradford, the best thing is to be the best teammate he can. One thing about this guy is he kind of gets it. He's a humble guy. I don't think he clamors for the attention now. He seems to handle it well. He's very poised."

Spagnuolo said Bradford's approach will be a lot like that of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan when he entered the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. Ryan too was under the microscope, facing the pressure of saving a franchise dismantled by the dogfighting saga involving Michael Vick -- another quarterback taken first overall.

Ryan was engaging but no nonsense, and he endeared himself to teammates right away by buying a new sound system in the locker room. Bradford hasn't signed his contract yet so that kind of gesture is a ways off.

Spagnuolo continues to say there is no timetable to get Bradford onto the field, a smart move right now. It's very likely that Bradford won't look good during his first few minicamps and OTA workouts because the speed of everything -- including the tempo of practices -- is overwhelming. Once he settles in, how he handles the huddle and how players respond to him will tell whether he's ready more than if he's making the right throws. Consistently connecting with receivers comes with time.

"This thing will be a ladder for him," Spagnuolo said. "There's this rookie camp, then the veterans arrive. Then training camp is here, and things heat up a little bit. There's the preseason games. Finally, we get into regular-season games. The intensity for the quarterback goes up and up and how he handles those stages will be important. While he's going through those we'll have our eyeballs on him."

More Rams

Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick of last year's draft, will be the full-time starting left tackle. He could work some at right tackle, where he played most of last season, during summer workouts, but he will be St. Louis' full-time left tackle and Bradford's blind-side protector, Spagnuolo said.

Alex Barron will slide over to right tackle until second-round pick Rodger Saffold is ready. Saffold will train at both tackle spots and could be worked in at guard, although he'd only play there if that becomes an urgent need.

The Rams are interested in signing veteran running back Brian Westbrook, a player Spagnuolo knows well from their days together in Philadelphia. Besides Westbrook mulling over whether he wants to be Steven Jackson's backup, Spagnuolo said team doctors want to really go over Westbrook's medical history before signing off. Westbrook's concussion issues and the projected durability of his surgically-repaired ankle and knee are a concern.

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