Raiders preview: Could show signs of improvement

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.

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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