NAPA — It's no secret that many people have given up on Michael Huff turning into the NFL's next great safety. Heck, Raiders coach Tom Cable gave up on Huff after only one game last season.
Yet, here Huff is in his fourth season still working toward validating the Raiders' selecting him No. 7 in the 2006 NFL draft, and making great strides, by all accounts.
"I know I wasn't playing up to top 10-pick potential, so I could see where he was coming from," Huff said of Cable. "Cable was a new coach, and he felt like he had to make a move. So I definitely respect him for that. I just kind of put that in my back pocket and learned from that."
Cable replaced fired coach Lane Kiffin on an interim basis four games into last season. After one game, Cable removed Huff and veteran wide receiver Ronald Curry from the starting lineup.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said the Raiders owed Huff more time than five games to prove himself.
"He's still a developing safety who got his position changed," Asomugha said. "I don't know if he got enough time to develop. I guess it's the nature of what's been going on here. If you don't perform within an allotted time, they move you on."
Curry sulked and said he felt singled out for the offense's struggles. Huff resolved to work harder and return a better player.
To that end, Huff spent numerous hours in the offseason breaking down the open-field tackling skills of some of the league's top safeties.
"I watched every tackle from Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, Troy (Polamalu) and Bob Sanders," Huff said. "I watched every one of their tackles from last season just trying to see what they do. They all play different defenses, and they approach the game different, so I tried to take a little bit from each."
Huff plays a free safety position that oftentimes leaves him as the last line of defense between the line of scrimmage and the end zone.
A missed tackle by a defensive lineman or a linebacker might cost his team a few yards. A missed tackle by Huff tends to result in a touchdown for the other team.
Huff, 26, entered the NFL out of the University of Texas. He was the first safety selected in 2006 and deemed a can't-miss prospect by many.
"Michael was a tremendous player at Texas," one AFC general manager said. "We had him rated as a top-five player that year and someone we considered trading up for. Sometimes it takes awhile for a player to find his niche in the NFL, and it's harder for them to make the adjustment when they aren't used to failing at any level."
Huff, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, played out of position his first two NFL seasons, when the Raiders asked him to play strong safety. His slight build made it difficult for him to hold up against 250-pound tight ends and against the run.
Finally, he was allowed to return to his natural position last season. Things went well in training camp, only to have them unravel in the regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos.
"I missed two, maybe three (tackles)," Huff said, "and then ever since then it was all downhill from there."
Huff is competing against Hiram Eugene for the starting job this season. He made a huge impression upon Cable with an interception against the Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 13 and several open-field tackles.
"That play out in center field like that really was something," Cable said of Huff's interception. "He's capable of that. That's why he's back there. He's athletic, can run, all that. "... He's a good player. He knows what he needs to do in terms of becoming a sure tackler. But he's right in the middle of it."
The Raiders have had eight top-10 picks in the NFL draft since 1996. Five of them have been panned for inconsistent play, with rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey off to a rough start, as well. The other picks were cornerback Charles Woodson (No. 4/1998) and running back Darren McFadden (No. 4/2008).
Year Pick Player Position Comment
1996 9 Rickey Dudley Tight end Physical specimen who dropped too many passes
1997 2 Darrell Russell Defensive tackle Ex-Pro Bowler squandered away promising career with drug use; Killed in crash in '05
2004 2 Robert Gallery Guard Has developed into top-tier guard, though Raiders envisioned him as Pro Bowl left tackle
2006 7 Michael Huff Safety Lost starting job early last season and is fighting to reclaim it from Hiram Eugene
2007 1 JaMarcus Russell Quarterback Showed promise in first season as full-time starter last year, but yet to reach heights expected
2009 7 Darrius Heyward-Bey Wide receiver Struggled with pass catching early on in camp but is making strides of late