HENDERSON, Nev. — Take a deep breath …
Kolton Miller at left tackle. John Simpson at left guard. Andre James at center. Alex Leatherwood at right guard. And Brandon Parker at right tackle.
OK, exhale …
Yes, it’s a unit that contributed to Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr getting sacked 40 times in 2021, the second-highest total of his eight-year career. It’s also a unit that, as the team prepares to begin its offseason workout program next week under new coach Josh McDaniels, is in line to return as is.
Wait, what? Are the Raiders really going to run it back with a unit that was a decided weakness a year ago?
Yeah, about that …
“There was an offensive lineman we were interested in and, again, there’s a level of discipline, like I said, that you have to have,” new Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler told three beat reporters at the recent NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Florida. “Some of those opportunities went a different way, and so we pivoted and we went a different way and strengthened other parts of the team.”
Yeah, the Raiders were looking at fortifying the O-line in the early days of free agency. Instead, they put the band back together and re-signed Parker, a much-decried third-round selection in 2018, to a one-year, $3.5 million deal with $2.662 million guaranteed.
Ziegler referred to the 26-year-old Parker as a still “ascending player” for Las Vegas.
“He has very good size, very good length, which are two important attributes at the offensive tackle position,” Ziegler said of the 6-foot-8, 320-pounder who started the last 13 games at right tackle.
“He’s an athletic guy for his size and he’s a guy that I think can continue to, again, Brandon is not a finished product. … He can continue to get better. He had a good experience of playing a lot of snaps last year … there’s a lot of learning that comes from that. All those things were exciting.”
And, as Associated Press pointed out, while Parker did have the highest Pro Football Focus grade of his career last season, he was still ranked just 52nd out of 55 tackles in the league overall — 47th in run blocking and 48th in pass blocking.
Las Vegas also signed versatile Alex Bars in free agency and re-signed Jermaine Eluemunor, who started three early-season games at right guard. And the Raiders will also regain the services of Denzelle Good, who opened the year as the starting right guard but was lost for the season when he tore the ACL in his left knee in the opener.
So maybe the Raiders aren’t exactly, ahem, running it back, huh?
Not when another $20 million or so comes back to their salary cap after June 1, thanks to the cuts of defensive end Carl Nassib and linebacker Cory Littleton. And not with every player essentially getting a “fresh start” from Ziegler and McDaniels.
And, as McDaniels said, aside from Miller being a foundation piece at left tackle, the O-line will be evolving throughout the offseason heading into training camp.
“They’re not just going to play one spot,” McDaniels said. “When I talk about relative versatility and flexibility, you better be able to play more than one spot or it’s just hard to create extra value for yourself, and for the team, if we have too many players who are just one-position players.”
McDaniels said a lot of different players will be shuffling in and out of both right tackle and right guard.
“Let them compete,” McDaniels said. “The best guys will play. But, in order to do that, we’ve got to let everybody have an opportunity.”
Which brings us back to the key to the right side of the line — last year’s first-round pick.
Is Leatherwood a right tackle, where he began last season as a starter? Or if he a right guard, where he was moved in Week 5? The No. 17 overall pick of the 2021 draft, and one of the most penalized lineman in the NFL, might be the key to the whole line.
“He’s an important part of it,” McDaniels said. “He played a lot of football as a rookie and that counts for something, you know what I mean? And you can say, well it was this or that. I know this, his second year is going to feel like his second year, not his rookie year because he was in there a lot. He played a lot of snaps. He played tackle, he played guard. And we’re going to try to give him an opportunity to earn a role that’s his best fit and that’s the best fit for the Raiders.
“And look, we know what he was drafted for and we’re going to give him an opportunity to do such. But ultimately, what we want to do at the end of the day is we’re going to let the best five guys out there. The best five guys we can put out there to protect the quarterback and run the football and be physical, that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Yeah, it’s a work in progress.