Campbell to Heyward-Bey: the Next Manning to Harrison?
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Well, no. Nobody — at least not anyone in the current NFL — is the next Manning to Harrison tandem. Probably not even close to what they accomplished over ten seasons. Certainly, though, the things that are going on in Raiders minicamp right now are worth keeping an eye on.
Because of all the consecutive top ten first round picks the Raiders have “earned” in each subsequent draft, the roster — particularly on offense — is absolutely overflowing with blue chip talent. If we just limit the Raiders to players taken in the top 42 picks in each draft since 2004, the Raiders have
- OT Robert Gallery
- QB Jason Campbell
- TE Zach Miller
- RB Darren McFadden
- WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
Or, theoretically, immense potential at every level of the offense. Then you combine those building blocks with the late round hits that teams “stumble on”: WR Chaz Schilens, RB Michael Bush, WR Louis Murphy, C Samson Satele, and the prospects of rookies WR Jacoby Ford, and OL Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell, and well, you apparently have a unit that last finished above 28th in offensive DVOA when Norv Turner was calling the shots.
In other words, the Raiders have been drafting high forever, still have a bunch of those blue chippers on the roster, and haven’t been on the right side of respectable in about 5 years.
Sure, it would be easy to blame the slow/non-existent development of those aforementioned blue chippers — Campbell, of course, is attempt number two for the Raiders at molding a first round QB into an acceptable passer for the Raiders — but there are almost certainly external factors at work here. I am highly skeptical that McFadden will do anything but go the route of JaMarcus Russell and be out of the league by 2012, but Heyward-Bey is a different animal. In what is going to end up being one of the most impressive Wide Receiver classes in a decade, Heyward-Bey was a very solid number one draft choice in that year. The Raiders made him the first wideout selected and took him over Michael Crabtree with the 7th overall pick. I’m comfortable calling that a mistake, and calling the Raiders out for not adjusting their board to the draft, rather, making their pick coming in.
Of course, that’s just the Raiders for you. They did the same thing with LB Rolando McClain this year — locked into a player who would be there at no.8 before seeing how the draft would fall — and the pick was very widely panned as a positive. Heyward-Bey was perceived to be a major reach by the Raiders, but the standard for determining a reach appears to be wildly inconsistent. I think the criticism the Raiders have received for passing on Crabtree is fair, but more than anything Heyward-Bey seemed less like an attempt to win right away, and more like an investment in an (inevitably) post-Russell future. At times, if you take the best player available every year, you’ll end up with a very talented team that has a whole bunch of parts that your coaching staff can’t draw 100% out of. If the Raiders could have had 80% of Crabtree’s potential in their offense, but 90% of Heyward-Bey, does it make significantly more sense to go for one player over the other?
Ignoring the risk-intensive elements of the draft analysis (i.e. Crabtree was “safer” coming out of TTU than Heyward-Bey out of Maryland), doesn’t a top ten team have to proceed with a clear plan and take the necessary risks to improve themselves rather than trying to assemble more talent than the other teams in the division? It’s a legitimate philosophical team-building question. If an ownership group works to build a talent base first, it’s essentially doing the next leadership group a huge service at the expense of themselves. For the Raiders though, the ownership never changes hands, so perhaps they’ve been right to chase talent the whole time.
The last two years have been a pretty drastic deviation from the way the Raiders have always done business. Russell was a “talent over fundamentals” pick, as was McFadden. If the Raiders had continued on the best flashiest player available path, Crabtree and C.J. Spiller might have been the newest Raiders. I think there was a fundamental shift in the way the Raiders thought starting just before the 2009 draft, and now Jason Campbell might be around to reap those benefits. On an unrelated note, that Lane Kiffin guy just has really bad timing, you know?
The other thing that needs to be addressed before gushing over the Campbell to Heyward-Bey combination as the next big thing in sports is that, well, DHB was genuinely terrible last year. A 23% catch rate is very impressive, but not in a good way.
DHB, by most accounts, has an issue with his hands that’s always going to affect his catch rates, keeping them around 57% or lower for his carer. In college, the thing that earned him the title of gamebreaker, as well as his lofty draft projection, was his ability to add yards and points in a plethora of ways. Inexplicably, the Raiders allowed him to carry the ball only twice in 11 games, on which he average 9.5 yards per touch. When the Raiders did get the ball in his hands last year, Heyward-Bey turned their investment into big yards. The problem was that he touched the football just once per game in 2009.
Some of the improvement has to come from Darrius Heyward-Bey himself, and there’s not a whole lot the Raiders can do schematically if wide open passes to him turn into interceptions, at some point, he has to help his quarterback convert passes to completions. But this was a three year project when the Raiders drafted him, as immediate returns would have necessitated the selection of Crabtree, and there is plenty of time in Oakland for a mulligan.
The next thing that needs to be said is that Jason Campbell has never thrown to anyone half as talented as Darrius Heyward-Bey. From Devin Aromashadu in college to Santana Moss, Devin Thomas, and Antwaan Randle El in the pros, Campbell has been around long enough where a player like Heyward-Bey is going to do wonders for his (Campbell’s) numbers. Come to think of it, quality producers such as Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens are also among the better players Campbell has ever played with in his career. After Washington, Oakland is going to seem like the land of milk and honey for a quarterback.
Campbell — and by extension, the Raiders receivers — are going to be dependent on the health and production on the offensive line in order to produce the points necessary to win ball games in Oakland this year, and with improvements in Denver and Kansas City, and the status quo in San Diego, but after Heyward-Bey played at Maryland and Oakland, without any semblance of a pro prospect at quarterback, and Campbell played at Auburn and then Washington, without players on the outside who were not out of place in an NFL passing offense, this seems like a really good time in each others development to have the fortune of crossing paths on the same team. The pressure isn’t exactly on the Raiders this year, which is why a year or two down the road, I can envision Campbell to Heyward-Bey as an ELITE passing tandem in the NFL, and what a great match that would make.