The Raiders – like every other NFL team – entered training camp with a list of concerns.
The Oakland offensive line was not high on that list. After all, the Raiders boast one of the most respected O-lines in football.
But perhaps that list of concerns should be reordered.
It’s hard to get a read on offensive line play during practices, but with a new offensive system, a blocking philosophy that hasn’t been overtly defined, a position coach who doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, and a couple of eyebrow-raising injuries, the Raiders’ current offensive line depth chart raises questions that Jon Gruden’s positive rhetoric can’t drown.
They’re questions that will need to be answered in the coming weeks if this Raiders team is to reach its theoretical potential on offense. Because the Raiders will go as far as Derek Carr takes them. And Carr has proven that he can’t take a team far if he’s playing behind even a league-average offensive line.
On Saturday, Gruden was asked how he thought Carr was doing in learning Gruden’s new offense during training camp, and the Raiders’ old/new head coach was adamant in his praise: “He’s doing really well. He’s doing really well. He’s doing really well. If coach doesn’t screw him up, we have a chance to have a heck of a quarterback. He is working. He’s working. He’s all business.”
The repetition can make you believe that Gruden doesn’t believe what he’s saying, but I assure you, he does. Carr has looked fantastic in Napa.
But practice is a far cry from a real game No one can possibly question Carr’s talent — his ability to make any throw you can imagine, even on the run, is tantalizing for any offensive coordinator or Raiders fan.
It’s that talent that makes the Super Bowl a possibility for the Raiders. But it’s talent that needs to be fostered.
Carr is not transcendent. He might have a flair for the dramatic, but he’s not above circumstance. Carr – like nearly every other quarterback in the NFL – needs to have competent coaching behind him, strong surrounding talent beside him, and an even stronger offensive line in front of him.
I don’t doubt for a second that Gruden is giving Carr that competent coaching. He’s challenging the quarterback – mentally and physically – in ways he has not been challenged before and, after a regressive season where Carr was coddled by his buddy Todd Downing, I can’t help but think that Gruden’s intensity and no-nonsense approach is a good thing for Carr. That’s not even to mention that the West Coast offense that Gruden will install – the intricacies of which we’re yet to discover – should highlight many (if not all) of Carr’s positive attributes.
It’s difficult to doubt that Carr has the necessary talent for success around him, too. The Jordy Nelson signing already looks like a total win for the Raiders and Amari Cooper and Martavis Bryant are as explosive as any wideouts in the league.
But heading into the third week of training camp, it’s hard to say that Carr has a good offensive line in front of him.
Yes, the Raiders have Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele, and Gabe Jackson (who is expected back in practice on Monday) – three of the league’s best at their positions – in the middle, but O-lines typically exemplify the O-ring theory: you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Right now the “weakest link” appears to be both tackle positions. And in a division with three of the four best edge rushers in the NFL (the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Denver’s Von Miller, and Kansas City’s Justin Houston), and probably another top-10 guy, too (the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram), that’s bad news.
Carr’s biggest limitation is his skittishness in the pocket. Last year, he posted a passer rating of 40.8 under pressure – the second-worst mark in the NFL. You’d get a quarterback rating of 39.6 if you spike the ball into the ground every play.
Worse yet, the effects of pressure seem to snowball with Carr – “phantom pressure” is a term I’ve had to use frequently to explain his play.
The Raiders’ offense line has to give Carr a clean pocket if this team is to be successful, but with five weeks until the regular-season opener, they have a rookie and one of the worst linemen in football last year at either end of the line. Needless to say, it’s less than ideal.
To start, the Raiders currently have their first-round pick, Roseville High product Kolton Miller, slotted in as the team’s first-team tackle. Miller has garnered plenty of praise so far in training camp – so much so that people have stopped whispering about Donald Penn being cut this preseason and are now flat out admitting its a possibility. Penn is still on the Physically Unable to Perform list following his offseason foot surgery and while Gruden thinks he’s “close” to returning, the amount of time he’s missed at camp and the fact that the Raiders can save $5 million on the cap by cutting him doesn’t bode well for him remaining on the team.
In addition, as far as I can tell, Miller hasn’t taken a serious rep at right tackle all camp, and Gruden said that he’s yet to consider moving him to the other side of the line.
But looking good against the Raiders’ Khalil Mack-free rushers in practice is one thing – doing it in a real NFL game is a whole different thing – and left tackle isn’t a safe place to “learn on the job”. Especially with this quarterback’s history.
Having Penn – who has his limitations but is still a known commodity and a three-time Pro Bowler – at left tackle and Miller at right is a decent situation. But Miller protecting the blind side and Breno Giacomini (ranked 80th of 81 qualified tackles by Pro Football Focus last year), Ian Silberman, or David Sharpe is not.
Perhaps I would feel better about the rookie and the retreads and developmental prospects at the tackle positions if the Raiders had a different offensive line coach, but I saw what Cable did to the Seahawks’ offensive line in recent years and the last thing he inspires is confidence.
Miller has five weeks to show that he’s every bit as good as the Raiders say he is. Penn has some time to reclaim his job. Cable can prove that he’s not the same coach he was in Seattle. Another tackle can step up in preseason games and prove that they’re worthy of starting.
That’s a lot to work out in the next month-plus. That’s concerning, no?