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Oakland Raiders' quarterback JaMarcus Russell, #2, walks off the field after the final offensive play against the San Diego Chargers in the 4th quarter of their game on Sunday, December 29, 2007 at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. San Diego defeated Oakland 30-17. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times)
OAKLAND _ The 2008 season arrived for the Raiders on Dec. 9, with a loss to the Green Bay Packers that eliminated them from playoff contention this season.

That gave Raiders coach Lane Kiffin three games to begin evaluating players with an eye toward next season and beyond.

Good thing, too, because 15 of the 53 players in uniform Sunday against the San Diego Chargers are slated to become free agents unless the Raiders act before Feb. 29. Five players on the injured-reserve list and not on the active roster brings the total to 20.

In other words, Kiffin is up to his silver-and-black visor in decisions that have to be made within the next two months. Those decisions are wide-ranging and include: six regular offensive starters, four defensive starters, team-high-tying sack artist Chris Clemons, long-snapper Jon Condo, kick returner Chris Carr, and seven other core special-teams players.

"We'll go back to work (today) and get this thing fixed," Kiffin said in a stern voice after the Raiders lost to the Chargers 30-17 for their 12th loss. "This isn't going to happen again.

"We're not going to be 4-12. We're going to play better. We're going to play our style of ball. We're going to attack free agency, we're going to attack the (NFL) draft, and we're going to do whatever it takes. We're going to look at every single thing to get better.


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This won't happen again, and our locker room will understand that, too, as well as our whole building."

Bringing up to speed rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell late this season makes it easier for Kiffin to deal with the impending free agency of Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper, the duo that started the first 15 games.

Russell made his first NFL start Sunday and is the unquestioned starter next season, Kiffin confirmed. However, McCown has said that he is receptive to re-signing as a backup and mentor to Russell. Culpepper fancies himself a starter, so he no doubt will sign elsewhere.

Beyond that, Kiffin needs to act fast on running back Justin Fargas and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Fargas supplanted LaMont Jordan as the starter midway through the season and flourished in Kiffin's run-heavy attack. He figures to command a huge pay raise, from the Raiders or any of a slew of teams in need of a featured back.

Asomugha said he intends to void the remainder of his contract in an attempt to cash in on his status as one of the game's premiere cover corners.

The Raiders' options concerning Asomugha are limited to letting him leave without any compensation in return, signing him to a long-term extension or slapping the franchise tag on him.

The latter scenario would obligate the Raiders to pay Asomugha the average salary of the top five cornerbacks in the league. It also would ensure their receiving two first-round draft picks as compensation if another team offered Asomugha a contract that the Raiders refused to match.

The Raiders went that route with Charles Woodson after the 2004 and '05 seasons. They forked out more than $19 million for 19 unremarkable games from Woodson as their franchise-tag player.

However, Asomugha is younger than Woodson was at the time and not as prone to injuries.

Wide receiver Jerry Porter also intends to void his contract and enter free agency. He posted decent stats this season in an offense that ignored the pass most games, but he has tired of the Raiders and likely won't re-sign.

Or will he, if asked?

"It's hard to just throw that away and go pick up with somebody else like that," Porter said after the game of his eight seasons with the Raiders.

Another key decision looms with defensive end Tommy Kelly. He missed the final nine games after sustaining a torn knee ligament. His recovery prognosis and asking price figure to go a long way toward determining whether Kiffin asks him back.

Players such as Carr, Condo, Jarrod Cooper, Isaiah Ekejiuba, and Ricky Brown filled a multitude of roles for the Raiders this season. None would break the bank with new contracts. Every one factors into Kiffin's plans, if only for next season.

Kiffin's decisions aren't limited to prospective free agents. For instance, running backs Jordan and Dominic Rhodes remain under contract but no longer are as attractive at their 2008 salaries because of Fargas' emergence as a front-line player.

Then there's aging starters such as left offensive tackle Barry Sims, right guard Cooper Carlisle, and defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Kiffin needs to decide whether the Raiders would be better off with an infusion of youth and cheaper salaries at those positions.

"We're moving in the right direction," Sims said. "It's, obviously, early to say. There's a lot of stuff that's going to change, like it does every year. Just regroup, get new guys on board and, hopefully, we'll make a run."

And what about one-time starters who lost their jobs such as free safety Stuart Schweigert, center Jake Grove, and cornerback Fabian Washington?

Purging some or all of the aforementioned players would free up salary-cap room that could be used to sign replacements via the NFL draft or free agency.

"We got a glimpse of the future and what we can do," Kiffin said of Russell's first start. "We need to surround him with really good players, too, get our guys better that are here and go out and get other guys.

"If you study the great quarterbacks, they don't do it by themselves. People put the right weapons around them, and that's what we're going to go do."

That process began three weeks or so ago. Today, it kicks into high gear.

Contact Steve Corkran at scorkran@bayareanewsgroup.com.