With an offense built around talented but inexperienced players like second-year quarterback Derek Carr and rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, the Oakland Raiders may need their offensive line to step up if the team hopes to make serious gains after a miserable 3-13 season. The Raiders offense played well during the preseason, and much of that success belongs to the line. But the loss of tackle Menelik Watson to a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon leaves first-year head coach Jack Del Rio with several difficult choices to make before roster cuts on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
Watson and guard J’Marcus Webb, who hadn’t spent much time as a guard with Chicago and Minnesota, actually “jelled” very well during training camp, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave told Inside Bay Area last week.
But due to Watson’s injury, the Raiders could be forced to rely on unproven rookies Jon Feliciano and Anthony Morris, or scour the waiver wire after the cut deadline. ESPN speculates Oakland will cut guard Mitchell Bell and tackles Matt McCants and Dan Kistler, despite Feliciano and Morris “not being ready.”
With Watson down, Austin Howard moves back into the starting lineup beside Webb, center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson, and tackle Donald Penn.
Oakland managed to keep most of the core contributors from last year’s line together (Penn, Howard, Jackson, Watson, Khalif Barnes), and made up for the loss of center Stefan Wisniewski by signing Hudson to a five-year deal. In 2014, the Raiders provided some of the best pass protection in the NFL, allowing only 28 sacks (No. 6).
But the line did little to create holes for the running game, with just 77.5 yards per game and four total touchdowns -- both the worst in the league. Late in preseason, Howard had his share of problems with run blocking while at right tackle.
The offensive line may have a tough time in the AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos both ranked in the top 10 in sacks last season, with the Broncos also No. 2 against the run, and neither defense lost any of their top players.
Yet there are reasons for optimism with the line. As a tandem, Watson and Webb showed flashes of what they could do as run blockers during the preseason. Penn is in the final year of his contract, and has stated that he wants to remain a Raider until retirement. Meanwhile, Carr has been a firm backer of the unit.
"I'm always biased, but I think we have the best line," Carr said. "I'll always think that no matter what because I love those guys. I think they've been doing a great job. They're going to tell you that they have a lot of things to get better at and they can point those things out to you. To me, I think they're doing a great job, and they work hard at it."
Even with Cooper expected to have an excellent rookie year, the Raiders have few pass-catching weapons beside veteran Michael Crabtree, Andre Holmes and Rod Streater. Del Rio may still consider keeping Brice Butler, Kris Durham or the blooming Seth Roberts at receiver, but at least one player may be cut at the expense of adding more depth to the line.
The ground game remains still in flux after the release of Trent Richardson this week, and the Raiders could use an extra rusher behind Murray and Roy Helu. Fifth-year back Taiwan Jones has served in pass protection and undrafted rookie Michael Dyer figures to beat out George Atkinson III.