Heyward-Bey Enjoying Fresh Start with Colts
By Corbin Smith
For decades, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis earned a warranted reputation as a "Riverboat Gambler" for his knack at taking on risky players with Oakland's first round draft choices. In many cases, these decisions worked out well for the team, but after reaching the Super Bowl in 2001, Davis seemed to lose his magic and many of the team's top selections ended up being major busts. It's not a coincidence that Oakland hasn't made a playoff appearance since that Super Bowl run, as the Raiders have fired multiple coaches and endured constant rebuilding for the past decade. Davis passed away less than two years ago, and a new management team wants to make wholesale changes in regards to how the franchise operates.
With over half of the team's salary cap this year going to players who will not suit up for the Raiders this season, Davis left the team with a major financial burden. General manager Reggie McKenzie faced a daunting task trying to purge the roster of expensive, overpaid players brought to Oakland by the previous regime. McKenzie found ways to unload players like Carson Palmer, who was sent to Arizona for a couple late round draft picks this offseason, but in many cases, the team was forced to eat money by releasing players nobody else wanted. The Raiders will be using more than half of their total cap space for the year on players who will not be playing in Oakland this season, which speaks volumes on how poorly Davis ran the organization in his final years with the team.
Oakland has endured a rough stretch that doesn't appear close to ending, but McKenzie has done his best to clean the roster and try to move the team forward. While some of these roster casualties won't be making much of an impact in the league this year, the Indianapolis Colts believe a change of scenery will allow former Raider first round choice Darrius Heyward-Bey to flourish.
During the early stages of the 2009 NFL Draft, the Raiders had to make a tough decision on who to pick with the 7th overall selection. Former top pick JaMarcus Russell was still on the roster at the time, and Davis still believed he could turn his life around and become a franchise quarterback. The stubborn owner insisted that Russell could be successful if the team brought in better weapons for him to throw to, and the 2009 draft class was full of athletic, talented receivers. It seemed like the right class to find targets for Russell to work with, and the team began discussing players to potentially draft with the first round choice. Texas Tech star receiver Michael Crabtree remained undrafted and when the Raiders went on the clock, the experts fully expected Oakland to take the All-American.
However, Davis always loved speed more than anything, and Heyward-Bey ran a 4.25 fourty yard dash at the NFL combine. Crabtree isn't a slow poke by any means, but Heyward-Bey had the fastest time of the entire field and Davis couldn't resist. Oakland decided to pass on the more-polished Crabtree and took the speedy Maryland receiver instead, and the fan base responded in anger. Heyward-Bey had first round talent, but his athletic gifts hadn't always translated well onto the football field, and his route running needed major work. Davis believed his speed combined with Russell's cannon arm would lead to a lot of big plays, but it became obvious during the ensuing training camp that Heyward-Bey had a long way to go before becoming a major contributor on offense. Russell compounded Oakland's problems by arriving at camp overweight and unmotivated, and the 2009 season ended up being a disaster for the franchise.
Heyward-Bay hardly touched the field as a rookie and only made 9 receptions during the year. By 2011, the Raiders thought he was finally turning the corner, as trading for Palmer seemed to improve his play. He grabbed 64 receptions and nearly reached the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career, but drops continued to be a major problem. After regressing to a 41 catch season in 2012, McKenzie and his staff decided it was time to move on from the former top pick and released him on March 12th.
Few teams had interest in the former Raider, but the Colts decided to take a chance on the embattled receiver and he agreed to terms with the team on a one-year contract on April 1st. Heyward-Bey now has the opportunity to hit the reset button and become a steady third receiver for the Colts behind Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, and so far, the team has been pleased with his progress. In Oakland, the receiver never had a shot to be successful because of instability at the quarterback position. With Andrew Luck running the Colts offense and a strong support system under Chuck Pagano, Heyward-Bey will finally get to play with a great quarterback and will have a chance to redeem himself after four brutal years in the black hole. Bringing in the former top pick will be a low-risk, high-reward signing, as his 6'2 frame and blazing speed could add another dimension to the Colts passing attack at a low cost.
Nobody knows what to expect from Heyward-Bey this year, but he'll get a shot at redemption when the Colts host his former team this Sunday. He's steered clear from bashing the Raiders organization, and he insists that this week's contest "is just another game" and he plans to prepare for it like he does for every game.
When asked about his thoughts on his time with Oakland, Heyward-Bey chose to take the positive route and said, "It was a good experience. We had a lot of good times, and we had some difficult times. But we had a lot of great teammates, great coaches and I learned a lot over there."
There doesn't appear to be bad blood between the two parties, and both could benefit greatly from the move. Heyward-Bey, who caught seven passes for 75 yards in three preseason contests, will no longer have to deal with the impossible expectations thrown at him when he arrived in Oakland in 2009. No longer saddled with this burden, he'll be able to play the game pressure-free and won't have to worry about being the team's top target. And he will finally have an opportunity to play for a team with playoff aspirations. As for the Raiders, the on-field product will most likely suffer, but with Heyward-Bey's departure, the team has officially moved on from the Al Davis era and the franchise can truly start over.
Sunday's opening game might not offer much drama on the scoreboard, but it'll be quite a sight seeing Darrius take flight against his former team. Indianapolis hopes the team's newest weapon will get the last laugh.