Gutierrez: Raiders vs. Bills -- Matchups to watch

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Gutierrez: Raiders vs. Bills -- Matchups to watch

Sept. 16, 2011

GUTIERREZ ARCHIVE
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Paul Gutierrez
CSNCalifornia.com

ALAMEDA -- It has all the classic makings of a trap game for the Raiders -- short week after opening on Monday Night Football, on the road in Denver, a cross country trip to face an East Coast team on East Coast time, in their home opener, against a team that came into 2011 with little or no respect.

The Raiders might have been wise to simply travel to Buffalo after opening in Denver rather than come back home to Oakland to prepare for the jaunt.

But the Bills' 41-7 demolition of Kansas City in Kansas City eliminated one possible road bump for the Raiders -- overconfidence won't be an issue. Not when they got a look at the tape. A look, then, at some key matchups to watch Sunday morning:

Matchup to watch
Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston (99) vs. Bills right tackle Erik Pears (79)

TALE OF THE TAPE
Houston: 6-3, 305, Texas, second season
Pears: 6-8, 314, Colorado State, sixth season

Following in the none-too-glorious footsteps of Raiders-linemen-turned-Bills-right tackle Langston Walker and Cornell Green, the versatile Pears has also seemingly found a home in Buffalo.

Now he finds a somewhat familiar face lining up across from him in Houston.

The two were brief teammates in Oakland in 2010, before Pears was released for good in late September, just as Houston was assuming his role on the defensive line.

Houston's relative lack of stats has belied his flashes of his ferocity as only one of his five sacks as a rookie came in the season's first five weeks. In this season's opener at Denver, Houston was credited with just two tackles. But he had a huge fumble recovery early in the fourth quarter when Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton simply dropped the ball at the Oakland 34-yard line.

On a fearsome front four with Matt Schaughnessy, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly , with John Henderson thrown in for good measure on certain packages, Houston is often the overlooked man.

RELATED: Boss, Seymour, Huff questionable for Raiders

But this weekend in Buffalo, Houston has a chance to shine. Against a guy in Pears who, in 2009, appeared in 12 games for the Raiders and started four, two each at left guard and right tackle.

It's also a chance for Pears to show the Raiders they gave up on him too soon, as they cut him for good on Sept. 26, 2010 and he wandered from Jacksonville to Buffalo.

The battle between Houston and Pears will be renewed in front of Buffalo right-handed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a passer rating of 133.0 with four touchdown passes in the Bills' opener. Houston needs to force pressure on Fitzpatrick's front side to keep him from getting too comfortable.

Other matchups worth watching:
Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) vs. Bills inside linebacker Shawne Merriman (56) -- A pair of players on seemingly totally different career trajectories. McFadden, who flirted dangerously with bustdom his first two seasons, followed up his breakout 2010 season by rushing for 150 yards at Denver on Monday. Merriman, one of the brightest stars in the NFL galaxy with 39 12 sacks his first three seasons before injuries and rumors of steroid use dogged him, was credited with one tackle in his Bills debut last week.

Still, Merriman has had some of the biggest games of his career against the Raiders, as evidenced by eight career sacks coming against Oakland. And at 6-foot-4, 264 pounds, the former San DIego standout is still a physical presence, but is he still athletic enough to bird-dog the ultra-quick 6-2, 210-pound McFadden coming out of the backfield? Keep an eye on a sore shoulder suffered by McFadden in the opener.

"We've got to get this man blocked," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said of Merriman.

Raiders cornerback Stanford Routt (26) vs. Bills receiver Steve Johnson (13) -- Johnson is probably best known for his epic Blame God Tweet last November, when he wrote, "I PRAISE YOU 247!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO" in the wake of his dropping a sure touchdown pass in the end zone that would have given the Bills an overtime victory against Pittsburgh. But the former seventh-round draft pick who had 1,073 receiving yards and 10 TDs last season is quickly being recognized for his game-breaking pass-catching skills, even if he is bereft of world-class speed. And the speedy 6-1, 195-pound Routt, who looked more than comfortable as the Raiders' No. 1 cornerback with Nnamdi Asomugha gone, should recognize. Even as the 6-2, 210-pound Johnson, a product of Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, has been slowed with a groin injury.

"With this team we just saw on film," Johnson said of the Raiders defense, "we saw a lot of height and depth at the position (cornerback). Of course they got the speed. They have guys who run 4.3 and 4.2's and what not. I think it will be a competitive matchup. I think it will be fun and entertaining, actually. We're going to make it entertaining."

McKenzie: Raiders will take 'different approach' drafting No. 24 overall

McKenzie: Raiders will take 'different approach' drafting No. 24 overall

Khalil Mack said atop Reggie McKenzie’s draft board back in 2014. While it probably felt like forever, the Raiders general manager only had to weather four picks before selecting the star edge rusher at No. 5.

McKenzie loved Amari Cooper in 2015, believing his athleticism and demeanor would pair well with quarterback Derek Carr. Cooper only had to survive three selections before McKenzie made him a Raider.

McKenzie shouldn’t hold his breath this year. The Raiders have the 24th pick. He’d pass out.

The Raiders now experience the downside of success, with lower selections than normal throughout the NFL Draft. They earned top 10 draft picks every year from 2004-15, when the Silver and Black became relevant again. McKenzie selected safety Karl Joseph No. 14 overall last year in his original draft slot, but a 12-4 record and a playoff birth pushed them way down in the draft order.

Thursday’s No. 24 pick will be the lowest since 2003, when the Raiders selected Nnamdi Asomugha 31st following a Super Bowl year.

That obviously turned out well. The Raiders need this deep-round pick to follow suit.

McKenzie likes several players in this draft, but there's no telling if they'll be available. NFL teams have a general idea who will make it down the draft board, but an unexpected move could turn the round upside down.

“The one thing that’s been more difficult, you have no idea who’s coming down at 24,” McKenzie said. “When you’re picking No. 4 or No. 5, you can have a clue, a few players that you can pick from. The draft is a funny thing. Players that you don’t think may be at the 24, could be there sitting right in front of your face.”

McKenzie certainly hopes a highly rated prospect falls in his lap, especially if the best available player fills a position of need. Or the cluster would be empty.

The Raiders must be ready for anything, with a draft cluster of players worthy of that particular pick.

“We’re going to study it continuously until that day,” McKenzie said. “Then you never know how trades go. It’s a different thing. But when you’re down that low in comparison to where we have been the last few years, it’s a different approach.”

Draft trades are always a possibility, especially as the round unfolds. The Raiders are in an interesting spot, a slot above the quarterback-hungry Houston Texans. Teams might want to leapfrog them to secure a coveted passer, giving the Raiders leverage in last-second trade talks to move down.

Reggie McKenzie hasn’t moved up in the first three rounds during his Raiders tenure, but this year might be an exception considering his roster is strong save a few important positions. He won’t leap all the way up the draft board, but a small move up is possible.

“I will not hesitate if I have to move up a little bit to get an impact player that we feel is on our board,” McKenzie said. “If we have to move up a little bit, I will not hesitate.”

Will Raiders GM McKenzie break mold and draft inside linebacker early?

Will Raiders GM McKenzie break mold and draft inside linebacker early?

It’s not like the Raiders haven’t been looking for linebacker help. They just haven’t found any entering this week’s NFL draft.

They brought Zach Brown in for a visit, but he didn’t like the team’s offer and left without a contract. They have interest in bringing last year’s starting middle linebacker Perry Riley back, but their valuations don’t match right now and the veteran remains on the open market. They let two-year starter Malcolm Smith join the 49ers in free agency. 

Right now, the position group is a skeleton crew with brittle bones. Free-agent signing Jelani Jenkins is the only interior linebacker with double digit starts, and could man the weak side, or end up a roving backing.

There isn’t much experience or talent or depth there right now, meaning the Raiders might draft an inside linebacker early for the first time in general manager Reggie McKenzie’s tenure.

Sio Moore was a third round pick in 2013, but was a strongside linebacker and edge rusher before switching spots in deference to Khalil Mack. Outside that, McKenzie took Miles Burris (fourth round) in 2012, and choose Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball (fifth round) in 2015. Those picks haven’t worked out well.

Neither have free-agent stopgaps Curtis Lofton or Nick Roach -- a quality player who fell victim to concussion issues – or waiver claim Ray-Ray Armstrong.

It’s been an unexpected black hole considering McKenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. all played on the inside.

“We want good linebacker play,” McKenzie said. “Both Jack and I know what a good linebacker is supposed to look like. We’re going to get us a couple, I hope, at some point before we play in September. Whether they’re in this draft or post draft or trade, somebody gets released, we’re going to do everything we can to upgrade our team; every position, including linebacker.”

While there are post-draft avenues to acquire inside linebackers, it might be time to go big at that spot.

There are attractive options likely available at No. 24 overall, where the Raiders can find the immediate impact starter they so desperately need. Let’s take a look at some who could be available when the Raiders pick.

Good fits: Raiders fans may shudder at the thought of selecting an Alabama interior linebacker with question marks. That’s expected after the Rolando McClain experience. Ruben Foster (6 feet, 229 pounds) is a top tier talent who could be slipping in this draft. He had a drug sample come back diluted at the NFL scouting combine, where he was sent home for arguing with a hospital employee. He has had shoulder troubles, though re-checks reportedly went well.

Foster is also an excellent player, the type of athletic thumper the Raiders are looking for. It’s still hard to see him sliding all the way to No. 24.

Florida’s Jarrad Davis (6-1, 238), however, seems like a near-perfect fit. He can cover and tackle, with a killer instinct necessary at that spot. He’s also praised as a high-character player and person focused on football. Analysts say he has good vision, closing speed and has physical gifts to help his continued development shoring areas of weakness. Davis has been well hyped recently, and there’s some thought he too could go higher than No. 24.

Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham should be available there, and could ready right away. Analysts says he’s a playmaker with good instincts, technique and play diagnosis. He’s a quality tackler with a nose for the football. He’s durable and fast enough to handle tight ends and running backs in man coverage. Detractors say he isn’t good getting off blocks and struggles with leverage at times, but Cunningham could be a productive three-down NFL linebacker soon.

LSU’s Duke Riley is a quick linebacker who can chase ball carriers down, and finished with a solid senior season. He might be a strong Day 3 pickup should the Raiders target other positions early in this draft.

Note: Temple's Haason Reddick wasn't mentioned here because he isn't expected to be available at No. 24.