NFL: Raiders’ Miller pleased to see new arrivals at WR
NAPA, Calif. — Even as he works on his blocking and other drills with the tight ends, Zach Miller has been keeping a close watch on the Oakland Raiders’ wide receivers as the work out nearby at training camp.
As quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s favorite target last season, Miller was a constant focus of opposing defenses and got little help from Oakland’s receivers in taking some of that attention away.
So, as the Raiders prepare for their preseason opener against Dallas on Thursday night, Miller is hopeful things will change. They have to if Oakland hopes to end its six-year playoff drought.
“If we have wideouts that they’re scared of or they have to pay attention to, that only opens me up more,” Miller said. “We’ll get our throws and we’ll get our thing going, but I’d like to see the ball spread around as much as possible.”
Miller caught 56 passes for 778 yards and one touchdown in 2008, solid production on an offense that ranked last in the NFL in passing.
Russell, in his first full season as the Raiders starting quarterback, completed 198 passes for 2,423 yards, meaning 28.3 percent of his completions and 32.1 percent of his yards went to Miller.
Oakland’s leading wide receiver? Johnnie Lee Higgins, who caught 22 for 366 yards and four TDs.
The team made upgrading its receiving corps a priority in the offseason, drafting Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick, then grabbing Florida’s Louis Murphy in the fourth round. Heyward-Bey got off to a rough start in camp but has since settled down while Murphy has arguably been Oakland’s most impressive receiver so far.
The Raiders are also hoping veteran receiver Javon Walker can return to form after missing most of last year with an ankle injury. Walker underwent knee surgery in the offseason but has yet to practice.
“We’ve got some wide receivers that can play,” Raiders coach Tom Cable said. “We’ve got a heck of a tight end, and so I think collectively we got much better in terms of talent.”
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Miller has been a gem since joining Oakland as a second-round draft pick in 2006. He set a franchise record for rookie tight ends when he caught 44 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns.
That same season, in Russell’s first career start against San Diego, Miller caught eight passes for 84 yards, setting a pattern that continued to play out last year. With a shaky offensive line and a receiving corps that was banged up, Russell repeatedly looked to his tight end to bail things out.
“Certain teams paid a lot of attention to me,” Miller said. “They knew JaMarcus would come to me, especially a big-time play where he started scrambling and that sort of thing. Teams knew, their safeties knew, to cheat my side and read Russell’s eyes.”
Cable said the new wide receiver corps will probably help Miller’s performance this year.
“Now there’s some other answers,” he said. “Now there’s some people who can distort coverage around Zach.”
Notes: Left guard Robert Gallery practiced for the first time since undergoing an appendectomy before training camp. Gallery isn’t likely to play against Dallas on Thursday. ... Running back Justin Fargas (hip), linebacker Jon Alston (foot) and defensive end Greg Ellis (back) were newcomers to the injury report. All three are expected to play against the Cowboys.