Believe it or not, someone who has an allegiance to the Raiders should be thankful for the presence of JaMarcus Russell.

That person was on the practice field Saturday, participating in workouts at the team's Harbor Bay complex in Alameda.

Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey can appreciate the struggling quarterback like no one else, for Russell has provided Heyward-Bey with a measure of protection from Raiders fans and coaches and teammates expressing a range of emotions generally confined to disappointment or anger or ridicule.

As long as JaMarcus is foundering in Oakland, he's alone atop the list of roundly criticized Raiders. He's receiving the blunt end of the booing at the Oakland Coliseum, getting bashed on sports-talk radio and getting blistered on the Internet. An unsuccessful Russell, as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, was the undisputed People's Chump.

And that made Heyward-Bey, taken seventh overall in the '09 draft, a smaller joke.

Heyward-Bey, however, is using the offseason to make it evident he wants no part of anyone's jokes. After a dreadful rookie year that was magnified by the high profile that comes with being the first receiver chosen, he is, by all accounts, working much harder to improve than Russell ever did.


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And that's worth something. Insofar as DHB is fleet but utterly unpolished, without the technique and nuance that separates accomplished receivers from pure sprinters, he likely will be no better than his effort and determination will allow.

"If you're here, you can play in this league," Heyward-Bey said between workouts. "You just have to go out there and make it happen. Nobody's out here not wanting to do it. If that was the case, you wouldn't be getting paid. So come out here with a purpose and try to make yourself better. If the ball's in the air, catch it. If the guy in front of you is trying to get by you, block him. That's how this game works.

"I've been here doing what everybody is supposed to be doing — nothing special. When they open up the doors at 9, I'm here at 9. That's what I do."

That's what he has to do, not only to provide the Raiders with a reasonable return on their investment but simply to remain in the NFL.

Despite starting the first 11 games last season, Heyward-Bey finished with nine catches for 124 yards and one touchdown. He dropped six passes (officially) and all too often disappeared in coverage. Simply put, he was not an NFL-quality receiver.

Yet that's what he must become if he is to have a chance to be anything more. And he might, if only because he seems to have a full understanding of his shortcomings.

"Night and day," was how coach Tom Cable described the difference in DHB's work ethic from then to now. "He was one of those guys, when the season got over he took a very short (amount of) time off and then was back working. He's with the equipment guys and the trainers, he's getting the JUGS out and (saying) 'I want somebody to throw me the ball.' (He) went right to work.

"That's why I said he'll get through it, because of those kinds of qualities. But there's no mistaking he's a different guy this year.''

Yet DHB remains inconsistent. His performance in practices has been better than it was a year ago, because he catches more passes than he drops and generally makes better use of his hands.

Though he has had plenty of trouble grasping the basics of receiving, Heyward-Bey's biggest crime is the burden of expectations that comes with being a top-10 pick. Never mind that the Raiders drafted him considerably higher than was warranted by his ability or his performance at Maryland.

What he still needs to learn, according to Cable, is how to forget. Good performers have short memories. Heyward-Bey still is at that stage where every mistake, every drop, can create in his mind an echo.

This is why, despite his impressive size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and world-class speed, Heyward-Bey is a project, a collection of raw materials presented to Cable and receivers coach Sanjay Lal and, now, to new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

DHB's dedication implies he's competitive, with a detectable level of pride. That he was a mess in '09 was partially obscured because JaMarcus was a bigger, hotter mess.

That was one season and one season only. Unless Heyward-Bey's offseason work becomes in-season production, he won't be able to hide behind Russell.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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