Having a great offensive line is rare. Building an elite offensive line is comparable to finding a black cat in a coal cellar. The Oakland Raiders 2016 unit allowed an NFL-low 18 sacks last season and the running game ranked tenth in yards per carry. The amount of talent on the line is impressive and the Raiders making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 had a lot to do with the offensive line.
Oakland Raiders End of Season Evaluation: Offensive Line
The center is the most important position on the offensive line. Common theory and popular opinion is that the left tackle, the man responsible for protecting the quarterback’s blind side, is the most important player on the line. The left tackle has a difficult job, usually lining up one on one with one of the opposing team’s best pass rushers. However, Rodney Hudson, not Donald Penn has the most difficult job. Centers hold almost as much responsibility as the quarterback. If the coach is the commander, and the quarterback is the general, then the center is whatever rank is right below that.
Rodney Hudson was signed before the 2015 season and has been a tremendous upgrade at that position. His consistency is excellent. Hudson remained on top of Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) center rankings this year, and continues to be the best pass blocking center in the NFL. He’s not as powerful as other centers in the run game but supports it in different ways. Along with being strong enough to handle big nose tackles and defensive tackles, Hudson is quick and athletic enough to pull away from the middle of the trenches, bounce to the outside, and run with a wide receiver on a screen play, or a running back on a trap to the outside. He is speedy and has great vision. Reggie McKenzie did an excellent job luring him from the Kansas City Chiefs. Since he is still in his prime, Hudson has a few more great years to play as a Raider.
This man is the only secure starter on the Oakland Raiders offensive line that was drafted. The rest were free agent acquisitions or not secure as starters. Jackson is an underrated 6’4”, 340 pound beast that was drafted out of Mississippi State. He was the third pick of the 2014 NFL Draft for the Raiders, right after they collected current superstars Khalil Mack and Derek Carr. Peeking back on that draft, we see three straight picks that shaped the rest of the franchise.
Jackson was the one of the first members of the Raiders self-named “Carr Insurance” and held the left guard position down at a solid level his first two seasons. In 2016, the Raiders signed free agent Kelechi Osemele and moved Jackson to the right side. He continued to perform at a high level. He ranked as the 16th highest pass blocking guard by PFF, and 22nd overall. His powerful run blocking also held up on the inconsistent right side of the line. Those problems were more with the right tackle and less to do with Jackson. The 2015 Pro Bowler has a lot of time to grow at 25 years old. He’ll continue to grow chemistry with Osemele and Hudson as Penn gets older and the Raiders fix their right tackle spots. His contract is expiring, but the connections between that team seems very strong. Hopefully, finances won’t get in the way of that and Jackson will be there for the long run as a Raider.
Donald Penn has been a great Oakland Raider. I know for a fact that Raiders fans, including myself, have enjoyed watching him in the Silver and Black. Not only has he done a beautiful job protecting Derek Carr’s blind side, he has been an expressive and emotional leader. He is the vocal leader and spirit of the Raiders line. Veteran leadership is important for this young team and Penn brings that every day to the team. Many times he has let his emotions get the better of him, allowing himself to get into scrums and heated exchanges with the other team. But that’s part of being a part of this team. There is pride with being a Raider and anyone that tries to step on their pride has to go through Donald Penn. He has made that clear. His nasty persona, dependability and sturdiness as the Oakland Raiders starting left tackle has already earned him a place in their history books.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele may not be as vocal as Donald Penn, but he is just as nasty, possibly meaner. Since he joined the team, both coaches and players have praised him on his play-hard attitude. The defensive linemen are thankful every practice that Osemele is on their team. He doesn’t let up for anyone and he plays through every play until the whistle is blown. Osemele joined the Raiders when he agreed to a five-year, $60 million contract which is the richest contract of all NFL guards. With such an expensive deal, expectations for Osemele to take his game to the next level were present, and he stepped up. Osemele climbed up PFF’s rankings, finished the season with the fifth best grade among guards, and earned his first Pro Bowl bid and First-team All-Pro honors. There is a plethora of talent on this Raiders team and they have a promising forecast heading into the new year and new season. Born of Nigerian descent. Kelechi means “Thank God”. In honor of his name, thank God that Kelechi Osemele is a Raider.
Three offensive linemen were responsible for holding up the right side of the line this past season. Due to injuries and inconsistent blocking, Menelik Watson, Vadal Alexander, and Austin Howard received playing time at right tackle as the Raiders sought consistency. The question at right tackle is an interesting one, and a position Reggie McKenzie will be sure to address this offseason. Watson’s contract is expired heading into free agency and he will most likely be allowed to walk or brought back on a cheap deal, if he can’t find a better option. Watson’s injuries have held him back from reaching the potential he has displayed, so maybe a change of scenery will work for him. Austin Howard is overpaid, but his contract is team friendly and McKenzie can cut Howard without worrying about a large dead cap hit.
Rookie guard/tackle Vadal Alexander started two games, appeared in nine and showed that he can compete in the NFL. Coming out of LSU, Alexander slipped to the seventh round and the Raiders snatched him up. He has elite size for an offensive lineman which is one of the biggest reasons his talent is promising. However, Alexander struggled adjusting to the speed of the NFL and made several mistakes in the play time that he saw. Holding penalties plagued him in the nine games he played in, and he did give up a couple of sacks on the season. His second season will be a big year for him and he needs to be ready to compete for the starting right tackle gig. The rest of the line is rounded out by Jon Feliciano and Denver Kirkland who did a solid job of providing depth at the guard and tackle positions and filling in as the sixth offensive lineman in certain offensive sets.
How do you determine how good this offensive line really is? The team stats are a compelling argument. Allowing a league low 18 sacks and leading the running game into the top ten in yards and yards per carry isn’t too shabby. This may sound surprising, but I think the run blocking is underrated and the pass blocking is slightly overrated. The pass protection is elite, there is no questioning that. The Carr Insurance that the Raiders built to protect their franchise quarterback is legit. But as surprising as it seems, Derek Carr’s impact on how well his offensive line plays is overlooked. Carr gets rid of the ball with the same speed of the best. His snapshot decision making and viper quick throwing release help keep those sack numbers low. Don’t be fooled in thinking that I am saying Carr doesn’t receive an abundant amount of time in the pocket several times during a game. But the pass protection isn’t there every play. It’s not the best in the game and Carr absolutely helps his blockers great, but it is a two way relationship. They help each other play at a top tier level.
The running game is different. The running backs on the Oakland Raiders have talent. Latavius Murray was the main workhorse and rookies DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard performed their roles adequately. All three are fast in the open field and compliment each other well with their varying skill sets. It’s time to address the elephant in the room though, and that’s the fact that Latavius Murray is not helping this team enough. Basically, Murray tries to be too shifty. If he just lowered his body and used his speed and strength to run straight through the gaps that his blockers open for him, the running game would be so much more successful.
The offensive line doesn’t get the credit they deserve because the talent of their workhorse is holding the running game back. Otherwise, this line would appear even better than they already do. Over the last two seasons, the run blocking hasn’t been good. With the addition of Kelechi Osemele though, the run blocking took a turn and the inside presence of Osemele, Hudson and Jackson might be the most dominant in the NFL. The holes are there, but Murray doesn’t run through them correctly. Finding a replacement running back could possibly show how good that run blocking really is.
Expect the Oakland Raiders to address their right tackle spot and attempt to find a real solution. It wouldn’t kill the team if they decided to roll with Vadal Alexander and Austin Howard, but making a change has the potential to improve the team significantly. Ricky Wagner (Baltimore) and Riley Reiff (Detroit) are the two top names of this year’s right tackle free agent class. The two players are serviceable starters that have struggled throughout their careers. No one will go out and break the bank for them but there will be competition for their services.
Unfortunately, the draft class isn’t much better. There aren’t any elite tackle prospects in this draft, let alone right tackles specifically. It is a weak draft and free agent class for right tackles, which makes circumstances difficult trying to find a solution at that spot. Cutting Howard, letting Watson walk, giving Wagner or Reiff a contract that pays out about $7 milion per year wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea either. Wagner and Reiff aren’t much better than Howard and Alexander has the chance to improve and make a compelling case to start at right tackle.
The fact is the Raiders have a top five offensive line even with the slight issues on the right side. Keeping this line intact, healthy and hungry is crucial and the Oakland Raiders will reap the rewards from their success.