Raiders quietly building a winner
Adam Schefter [ARCHIVE]
September 30, 2011
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Only now has Oakland begun to erase the memories of mistakes that have taken years to overcome.

In 2005, Oakland used its first-round draft pick on cornerback Fabian Washington one pick before Green Bay drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

In 2007, the Raiders drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell No. 1 overall, just before Calvin Johnson went to Detroit at No. 2, offensive tackle Joe Thomas went to Cleveland at No. 3 and running back Adrian Peterson went to Minnesota at No. 7.

Pairing Rodgers with Johnson would have given the Raiders the type of team the Lions have built. Yet with a 2-1 start heading into Sunday's showdown versus New England, Oakland still has become one of the NFL's early-season surprises.

Since some memorable misses, the Raiders have continually connected. They have been on a run of quiet confidence that has replenished the roster, transformed their team, and created a certifiable challenger to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West.

In 2008, the Raiders used the fourth overall pick on running back Darren McFadden, who now leads the league in rushing.

In 2009, the Raiders traded a 2011 first-round pick to New England for defensive lineman Richard Seymour, a franchise player who will be battling his former Patriots teammates Sunday.

And then, in the past two years, the Raiders have fortified their trenches, drafting linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive end Lamarr Houston, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and center/guard Stefen Wisniewski, to go along with their customary speed merchants in wide receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore.

Oakland is trying, in the words of coach Hue Jackson, "to build a bully." So far it looks like it's working.

Based on conversations with NFL scouts, here's what makes Oakland formidable: its defensive line is tough and talented, and its running game is explosive and excellent. Now New England will give Oakland an accurate gauge of exactly how much progress it has made.

Through three weeks, the NFL has seen surprise teams emerge in the AFC East and NFC North. Some suspect there could be another in the AFC West.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Newton a bargain for Carolina: Over the next three seasons, nobody will contain Carolina quarterback Cam Newton any better than the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement. It has slowed him down in a way the Chicago Bears are hoping to Sunday. Under terms of the NFL's 10-year CBA, no rookie, including Newton, is allowed to renegotiate, alter or amend his contract in any way until after the final regular-season game of his third season. This means the Panthers have Newton this season at the rookie minimum $375,000 base salary and a salary-cap number of just over $4 million, nearly a million less than the salary-cap number that Alex Smith has in San Francisco.

Carolina handed Newton a handsome $14.5 million bonus this summer, but Newton better save it. He won't be seeing another bonus anytime soon. No matter how well Newton continues to perform -- and he has been the best rookie in the NFL this season -- Newton is assured of making a total of $18.6 million the next three seasons, which is more than $7 million less than what the Colts are paying quarterback Peyton Manning this season alone. And Newton already was paid $56 million less than the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Sam Bradford.

To compare Bradford's $78 million deal that included $50 million guaranteed to Newton's $22 million deal illustrates just how hard rookies have been hit. But they're locked in, too. What Newton's start has illustrated is that, although teams have added protection against exorbitant salaries for high draft picks that flame out, premium players who now shine early in their careers will be victimized and exposed.

Carolina has watched Newton turn into the NFL's most exciting rookie and one of its best bargains as well. He has given the Panthers not only the injection of hope they needed, but salary-cap flexibility for years to come, though not of his own choosing. By now, details of the NFL's new CBA are, thankfully, an afterthought. But Newton, and the salaries he will make, are not.

2. Roar is restored: There have been plenty of good times to be a fan of Michigan's sports teams. But not many have been more enjoyable than now. For the first time since 1987, the Detroit Tigers are division champs. And for the first time since 1980, the Detroit Lions are 3-0 heading into Sunday's game versus Dallas.

For those who think the Lions' start is a fluke, think again. Dating to last season, the Lions now have won seven straight games, the NFL's longest winning streak. And Detroit's winning already has had one unintended result. It is making Thanksgiving Day with the Lions and Packers even more appetizing.

3. Heat is on Sparano: This is the NFL version of Miami heat. Tony Sparano watched the Miami Dolphins court Jim Harbaugh during the offseason, and now is 0-3 this season with a road game at San Diego before a bye, then a Monday night game in New Jersey against the Jets.

Bye weeks typically have been the in-season time when teams inclined to make coaching changes strongly consider them. If the Dolphins fail to win Sunday at San Diego, the spotlight on Sparano -- who got a two-year contract extension during the offseason for Miami's botched courtship of Harbaugh -- will intensify. Miami could opt to turn to its defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, or quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell as an interim head-coaching replacement.

But the Dolphins look doomed, not unlike a trade the team nearly completed this summer. Just when the Dolphins were about to trade a fourth-round pick to the Broncos for quarterback Kyle Orton in August, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross declined to pay the three-year, $27 million extension that the quarterback and Miami already had agreed to, league sources said. When Ross declined to pay Orton, the deal blew up. Now Miami's season almost has.

The Dolphins have lost six straight, 11 of their past 12 at home, and fans are staying away from their games. Ross could opt for a coaching change, but he should be warned. The Raiders and Rams each changed coaches four games into the 2008 season. Oakland finished 4-8; St. Louis 2-10.

4. CJ on the spot: With injured wide receiver Kenny Britt lost for the season, the Titans need running back Chris Johnson to produce more than ever. Problem is, he hasn't lately.

Dating to last season, Johnson now has gone five straight games without a 100-yard rushing performance. In those five games combined, Johnson has 195 yards -- fewer than he has rushed for in two games alone during his career.

This season Johnson doesn't even have 100 rushing yards -- he has 46 carries for 98 yards. One NFL executive said this summer, before the Titans paid Johnson $30 million...
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