ALAMEDA -- Whether Mike Mitchell makes his first start at strong safety won't be determined until game day as Tyvon Branch emerged from the locker room after warm-ups and drills and was a limited participant in practice Friday.
Branch, who has started 57 consecutive games, made it to the field after the media window had closed, and coach Dennis Allen was non-specific about how much he was able to do.
Asked if Branch's participation was a big step forward, Allen said, ``It's a better step forward. It's better than he didn't practice.''
Allen said Branch would be a game-time decision, and Branch, moving deliberately in the Raiders locker room, said, ``I'm not sure yet, man. It's a day-to-day thing right now.''
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey did not practice with a hamstring strain and would also be a game-time decision, Allen said.
Running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson (high ankle sprains) and defensive tackle Richard Seymour (hamstring) were all ruled out of the New Orleans Saints game.
Mitchell, who has opened seven games in nickel packages but hasn't started in the base defense, is pulling for Branch but at the same time wants to show what he can do as a starter.
It's a big challenge in that the New Orleans offense features tight Jimmy Graham, a 6-foot-7 former basketball player out of Miami who has 45 receptions for 533 yards and seven touchdowns and presents a nightmare matchup because he's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers.
``I haven't seen anyone get very physical with him yet, as far as DBs,'' Mitchell said. ``Most guys are too small, and they shy away from him. She just bodies them. I'm curious to see how he's going to handle more of a physical, skill-position guy checking him at the line.''
Taken in the second round of the 2009 draft, Mitchell remains eager to validate the decision by Al Davis to select him, a choice that astonished some draft analysts who considered him a late-round pick or potential undrafted free agent.
Mitchell has battled injuries at times, played in different defensive packages and on special teams, and looks forward to his first crack at being a full-time player. The presence of Branch, drafted the previous year and a starter for the last 57 games, has kept Mitchell in a supporting role.
``I'm just so ready to be done with this, to show what I can do,'' Mitchell said. ``I'm tired -- I feel like I've been held back, held back, held back. So if I get the opportunity I just want to go play good football and show the abilities God has blessed me with.''
Mitchell plays with emotion and reckless abandon. He's known as a ``friendly fire'' threat among teammates, and Allen is hoping to see Mitchell dial it back just a bit when necessary.
``He's a very passionate player, he works extremely hard, he loves the game,'' Allen said. ``Sometimes you've just got to slow his heartbeat down a little bit and get him to calm down. It's important to him, and that's what I like about him.''
Tyson Williams died at age 4 on Nov. 9 at Oakland Children's Hospital from what the team called a ``sudden and unexpected illness.''
It was a situation for which there was no manual or guide for a rookie head coach.
``You try to keep everybody informed of what's going on and be there for them in case they need something,'' Allen said. ``You can't help but have emotions about that. It was a tough situation.''