Raiders Kiffin cautiously optimistic about Raiders season

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- For all the positive developments coach Lane Kiffin has seen during the Oakland Raiders' offseason workouts, he still knows it's far too early to make any pronouncements about how the team will fare this season.

A few things have stood out so far at the start of year two of Kiffin's tenure as coach. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell looks much more comfortable after starting only one game as a rookie and first-round pick Darren McFadden could provide a game-breaking element that has been missing on offense in recent years.

But with the team practicing without pads and contact, there are still plenty of unanswered questions that will determine whether the Raiders can end a five-year string of losing.

"You want to figure it all out right now and so do we," Kiffin said. "How good are we going to be on offense, defense? But we don't even have pads on. So there's a ton of work to go and a million things that will happen between now and then. Our roster will change, our depth chart will change, so all we're trying to do is get individuals better and that will help our team."

The Raiders held their fifth and final practice of their mandatory minicamp on Thursday, marking the last time the whole team will be together until training camp. Oakland still has two weeks of voluntary workouts remaining and Kiffin expects most of the players to be on hand for those.

Kiffin has singled out a few players for praise this week, including Russell, McFadden, second-year receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins, free agent receiver Drew Carter and free agent left tackle Kwame Harris.

Harris' play at left tackle could be a key for the Raiders this season as they want to make sure they have a line that will protect Russell. Harris struggled across San Francisco Bay with the 49ers before signing with Oakland this offseason as a free agent.

He has taken well to the zone-blocking system of assistant Tom Cable and both he and the team believe the new start was just what he needs.

"It's been nice to get in there and kind of have it all thrown at you at once," Harris said. "But it's good. I feel like I'm making progress, feel like I'm playing well. There's still a lot of work I have to do, still a lot of things that I still need to make a habit of. But it's June, it's still early."

After having the worst line in the league in 2006, Oakland showed big signs of improvement last year under Cable. The Raiders ran for the sixth most yards in the league and cut their sack total from 72 to 41. But they still struggled to protect their quarterbacks and often didn't have time to run longer developing routes.

While Robert Gallery and Cooper Carlisle are established as starting guards, there are questions at the other three line spots even though Harris appears to have the inside shot at left tackle. Chris Morris has got the bulk of time at first-team center ahead of free agent John Wade this week while Mario Henderson and Cornell Green are competing at right tackle.

"That unit needs to come together just like it did a year ago," Kiffin said. "They'll be a key to our team as they were before. We've got to figure out the center and get the left tackle going and make sure we have the right guy at right tackle and go from there."

There are some other moves the Raiders will try to make before training camp begins. The team is trying to trade running back LaMont Jordan, who was told to stay away from practice this week. A deal seems unlikely considering Jordan's $4.7 million salary for this season and he could be cut instead.

The major move that the Raiders would like to accomplish before camp begins July 25 is to sign first-round pick Darren McFadden. McFadden's agent Ian Greengross was in town this week and talks have begun between the two sides. McFadden has expressed a strong desire to be signed before camp starts and the Raiders want to avoid another holdout after Russell missed the entire preseason a year ago.

"You always like them signed right away from my standpoint, the coaching side of it," Kiffin said. "But you always have to do what's in the best interest of the future of the organization. Hopefully it'll get done and it's something both sides can agree upon. Right now it doesn't affect anything. Would we like to have a holdout? No we wouldn't, because there's so many things we want to do with him right away."

Two of the three players picked before McFadden have already signed their deals with No. 1 pick Jake Long getting a $57.75 million, five-year contract with $30 million guaranteed from Miami and third pick Matt Ryan getting a $72 million, six-year contract with $34.75 million guaranteed from Atlanta.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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