Culpepper making Raiders regret draft-day decision?

NAPA, Calif. -- Watching Daunte Culpepper drop back, roll right or left and then fire a missile of a pass makes you wonder if the Raiders made the right choice in taking JaMarcus Russell.

From the personnel standpoint, Russell to Oakland was a no-brainer. The league hasn't seen an arm like his since John Elway. Owner Al Davis loves to stretch the field with long passes, but quarterbacks taken first stretch the finances of a franchise. The cost of Russell is more than $30 million in guarantees. Russell is holding out, rejecting offers from the Raiders that he didn't like before the draft.

Just imagine if the Raiders heeded Russell's suggestion to bypass him if the finances clouded their marriage on the field. The Raiders could have traded a sixth-rounder to Miami for Culpepper, drafted wide receiver Calvin Johnson and shipped Randy Moss to New England -- as they did -- for a fourth. Russell isn't signing anytime soon, and Culpepper is in a mad rush to learn coach Lane Kiffin's offense.

At stake is a September that will either make or break the psyche of this team. The Raiders have home games against Detroit and Cleveland in September. Winning those games is paramount for -- at worst -- a 2-2 start and first-year credibility for Kiffin.

Timing is everything, and time is working against the Raiders. Culpepper, who is working feverishly, has had only two weeks in this offense. Josh McCown likely will start the regular season behind center, but he was acquired on the second day of the draft. Russell will sign at some point, but his arrival will be too late for him to be in the 2007 equation.

McCown and Culpepper are on one-year contracts, and if either one or both succeed, they could leave after the season. At some point Russell has to decide if he's willing to go back into the draft if the Raiders maintain their financial stance.

For the moment, the story in Raiderland is Culpepper. Athletically, he shows flashes of his Vikings days. In drills, he looks good. The arm is sensational. Culpepper not only makes all the throws with velocity but also has the accuracy of a quarterback who once threw 39 touchdown passes in a season. The encouraging part is his rollouts.

"I knew from the time I got injured it was going to be awhile before I was going to feel like I feel now," Culpepper said. "It's tough. It's behind me now. I've got a chance to rectify things and take everything step by step. I'm not going to take too many steps at one time."

Culpepper, less than two years after having ligaments in his right knee replaced, moves naturally to his right or left and can fire a pass with velocity. Culpepper says the knee isn't swelling. The Raiders checked him out medically and the knee passed tests with flying colors. His comeback is well on its way.

However, Raiders fans who think Culpepper will be ready by Week 1 need to understand the odds are against that. He is not yet comfortable in the Raiders' system and is still adjusting to the talent around him. The Raiders can't count on his being the opening-day starter.

"Once he gets his legs back, that's going to be the thing," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You play this game with your legs and your mind. Everything else will follow. He's hurting. You can see it. But he's working himself."

Sapp and the Raiders honestly don't know who the starter will be. McCown, Andrew Walter and Culpepper are getting equal work, in that order. That has to sort itself out in four preseason games.

"We got to find us a caller," Sapp said. "We've got to find us a triggerman and let him shoot."

Culpepper is clearly trying to get his football legs back after a stormy season with the Dolphins. The Miami experience probably scarred him emotionally as much as the surgery scarred his knees. He did everything for Miami coach Nick Saban. Coming off a devastating knee injury, Culpepper participated in every offseason workout and every minicamp practice.

By the fall, his knee was fatigued and becoming painful. A surgical procedure was needed to prevent the knee from locking up. The recovery time was 4-6 months, and Culpepper made sure he took the proper steps to be ready for the 2007 season. But getting the knee ready and getting the mind ready are two separate challenges.

The knee and the legs are making progress. Couple that with the fact that he is learning his second different system in two years, and it's natural to think he's not going to feel completely comfortable. Culpepper looks a little rusty and will for some time.

"The first thing I look at here is the coaching staff, and I am very excited about what they bring to the table," Culpepper said. "I'm a guy who likes to be coached. They tell me, 'We are going to coach you.' I think every day how much I want to get better."

"Daunte has a big arm and can make all the throws," Kiffin said. "It's so hard with the situation he comes into. Everybody has been around for months. They've had OTAs [organized team activities], minicamps and all the reps quarterbacks need. He comes in with a system with terminology he hasn't had before. There is no carryover that way. It's not like Scott Linehan getting him after he had already been in that system. It's so foreign to him."

Each day, Culpepper makes progress, but time is an issue. He enters Saturday's preseason opener against the Cardinals as the third-string quarterback, a temporary status that will be adjusted by how well he plays.

"There is no timeline," Culpepper said. "I have an opportunity to be a starter."

So does Russell, but his chance likely won't come until 2008.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.