Raiders primed to end losing streak

Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had just nine catches during his rookie season, but he has looked good in training camp, John Clayton writes. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

NAPA, Calif. -- This is the best I've felt about a Raiders team in years.

Two years ago, I forecast a seven- or eight-win season based on an easy Raiders schedule. That prediction turned out wrong as Oakland finished 5-11. What I saw on the practice field Monday indicates that -- regardless of the schedule -- the Raiders are headed in the right direction.

One of the problems in recent years is that the Raiders seemed like a baseball team swinging for the fences instead of just getting singles and moving forward. Al Davis would be mesmerized by incredible 40-yard times and athletic abilities instead of just getting good football players.

In the offseason, the Raiders added good players in linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive end Lamarr Houston, quarterback Jason Campbell and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, just to name a few.

Yes, it looks like the Raiders' seven-year streak of 10 or more losses per season might end in 2010.

Here are three observations from Raiders camp:

The defensive front seven is the best the Raiders have put together in years. Houston, a second-round pick, wouldn't back down against veterans in minicamp practices and immediately vaulted into the starting lineup at left end. That was important because it allowed Richard Seymour to move to defensive tackle.

The Raiders have struggled against the run the past four seasons, giving up an average of 148.8 rushing yards a game. Seymour and Tommy Kelly should anchor the run defense and occupy enough blockers for McClain, the first-round choice, to get free to make a ton of tackles. McClain already has established himself as one of the leaders on the defense. He makes the calls and he should make the plays.

The Raiders also signed former Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson to help out for 20-25 plays a game as a run-stopper. The Raiders are deep at tackle with Seymour, Kelly, Henderson, William Joseph and Desmond Bryant. Getting Wimbley from the Browns was a steal. He'll play the strong side, but he offers pass-rushing ability if needed.

The veteran who feels the best about the changes is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Losing frustrated him, but he now plays for a defense that could make a difference.

Speaking of difference-makers, I love the Hue Jackson addition. Quarterback Jason Campbell might be the best player addition, but Jackson might be the most important offseason addition. The Raiders' new offensive coordinator is doing amazing things with the offense. Davis wants to stress getting the ball downfield. Jackson is satisfying Davis' desires in that regard, but he's mixing in plenty of other things to update the offense, including short, quick passes to build confidence for the receivers.

Jackson has done his best work with Campbell. In Washington, Campbell wasn't considered much of a leader by upper management. Campbell explained that was because he was a young quarterback trying to work with an older, veteran team. In Oakland, Campbell works with loads of younger players who are looking to him for leadership. Jackson is giving his quarterback an offense that should help him gain confidence and allow the players to follow Campbell's lead.

Even though head coach Tom Cable has a strong background in offensive line play, blocking is a concern. In run-blocking drills Monday, the defense blew up the offense on eight consecutive plays.
Cable got involved and fixed some of those problems, but the offensive line must develop consistency. Cable plans to go with Mario Henderson and Langston Walker at tackle, Robert Gallery and Cooper Carlisle at guard, and Samson Satele as center.

Most improved player: Darrius Heyward-Bey DHB -- who had just nine catches as a rookie last season -- has noticeably improved his pass-catching skills. Instead of letting the ball come to him, Heyward-Bey is attacking the ball and snatching it with his hands. Part of the success can be attributed to Jackson's schemes. The offensive coordinator has designed quick routes in which DHB can run to a spot and make a quick turn.

He's also catching quicker, shorter passes that emphasize his running ability. But unlike last season, Heyward-Bey is playing with confidence. Let's face it, the Raiders' receiving corps is untapped because former starting quarterback JaMarcus Russell couldn't get the ball to wide receivers. No receiver on the roster has better than a 34-catch season. DHB, Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy and Todd Watkins have only 95 catches combined during their NFL careers.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.