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Silver and Black back and better than ever
Raiders safety Tyvon Branch (33) faces off with wide receiver Greg Little during practice drills on Monday at training camp. - photo by CANDY PADILLA / The Journal

Training camp is especially important this year for the Oakland Raiders, a team that went through major changes in the offseason. This is the first opportunity for the coaches to see how close—or how far—the team is to competing on a weekly basis heading into the first preseason game for the 2014 year.

It's still early, but so far, the signs have been encouraging. Veterans have lived up to expectations, and several players have stepped up and made strong cases to be included in the final 53-man roster.

Matt Schaub looks to be the undoubted starter under center and the defense really looks like a veteran squad with key additions to the front seven with players such as Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith and LaMarr Woodley.

“I felt confidence when I signed because when I saw the defense they played hard-nosed ball,” said Woodley. “I couldn’t understand why they only had four wins, but it came down to not finishing despite there being lots of close games and that could’ve been easily an 8-8 record but now all these new guys come in and take the defense and make everyone much better.”

Of course, training camp hasn't been perfect. Some players have either fallen to injuries or have simply not performed to the level expected, leaving the team with major questions to answer as training camp continues.

One of those big time players, Khalil Mack, has been going through some growing pains along the way but the help of his veteran teammates has made the transition a lot smoother.

“Training camp is all about opportunity to really get to know, physically, the people around you with OTAs where we don’t do much hitting,” said Woodley. “Now, I get to see what moves and tendencies these guys have like Khalil Mack and I know what they do with pads on so I get a much more clear understanding when game time rolls around.”

While the defense already looks to be the strong focal point of the team, the offense doesn’t look too shabby either with center Stefen Wisniewski at the helm providing consistency for the offensive line position — which is one of the most underappreciated positions in the league.

“I am excited about the veterans we have added, lot of talent in the backfield as well as on the offensive line with Donald Penn and Austin Howard,” said Wisniewski. “I feel these guys are really going to help us out a lot being great players and veterans, and then you add Maurice Jones-Drew into the backfield [it] should be huge for the running game so I’m excited.”

Wisniewski is perhaps one of the best centers in the league working with multiple quarterbacks in Schaub, draftee Derek Carr and also Matt McGloin, but the team will need a consistent base and play from the rest of the line to see success.

Adding local boy in Jones-Drew brings immediate depth and leadership to the running game, but let’s not forget that injury-prone Darren McFadden decided to return, at least for one more year, in hopes of flourishing this season and making it a successful one.

“I consider myself a loyal player and I really like this team because they are the ones who drafted me and gave me a chance to play,” said McFadden. “I think we can do some great things this year and I have been working on being healthy and consistent.”

The Raiders will travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings at 5 p.m. Friday for the preseason opener.