There has been a lot of moves being made by the Raiders along the offensive line this free agency period. It, of course, started with the departure of Jared Veldheer and has since been their primary focus of the free agent period.
Since the very start of their efforts, they have kept everyone guessing as to where their incoming free agents will be playing. They struck a deal with Rodger Saffold immediately upon the open of free agency. And despite his extensive experience at left tackle, the departure of their own left tackle, and the huge contract offer for Saffold, there were rumors Saffold could be destined for guard.
Saffold would later fail his physical, so we will never know (But, we kinda do know).
The next signing they had was the evening of the first day when they locked up offensive tackle, Austin Howard. It seemed a no-brainer that Howard would man the right tackle position considering that's the position at which he started the past two full seasons with the Jets, but Reggie McKenzie recently said that isn't the case.
In an interview at the owners meetings, McKenzie said Howard will play guard. So, that makes two big contracts to two offensive tackles with claims he would be moving inside. Howard moving to guard would seem to make just as little sense as the idea of moving Saffold there. At least Saffold had played guard and was considered very good at the position. Howard has never played guard in his NFL career. Add to it the fact that he is 6-7 which is considered too tall to play guard and it seems like an odd decision.
According to McKenzie, it was Tony Sparano's idea to bring in Howard and have him move to guard. Howard played under Sparano with the Jets. Howard is rated higher as a run blocker than a pass blocker and after their time together in New York, Sparano believes Howard can make the position change.
Dennis Allen painted a less certain picture in an interview Tuesday with the Bay Area News Group.
"Austin Howard was a guy that we know can play right tackle but also having the ability to look at him some at guard to see how can we mix and match and put the best possible five-man line-up out there on the field.
"And I think we want to look at maybe Austin Howard at guard some, look at Menelik Watson at right tackle obviously, that's what we drafted him to be. But I think the good news is we've got flexibility, especially if we have the injury issues like last year, we can kind of slide some guys around that can play different positions."
The Raiders traded down in the first round of last year's draft to get the second round pick they used to draft Watson. The string of injuries that caused the shuffling along the line began with Watson. He got injured in the off-season and couldn't get healthy again. Then Jared Veldheer went out with injury and without Watson, Khalif Barnes had to switch sides and the Raiders had to sign Tony Pashos and Matt McCants to man the right tackle spot.
Even before the Raiders began reaching outside the organization to bring in offensive lineman, they made re-signing Khalif Barnes a priority. He is an example of the value of a versatile offensive lineman the Raiders now covet.
The next signing was that of Kevin Boothe who actually IS a guard. He has played left guard for the Giants the past eight seasons. If he were to play there with the Raiders, it would leave Barnes wondering where he will play. That would leave Barnes as a utility back up.
But wait, there's more.
Mike Brisiel has been the starter at right guard the past two season but with the way the organization is talking about players moving inside, it would seem they were proceeding as if Brisiel will not be on the team. There had been rumblings he was considering retirement due to injuries piling up over his career. Reggie McKenzie says that Brisiel will be back next season but switch to left guard.
All this leaves out the Raiders top pick (third round) from two years ago - Tony Bergstrom. Forgot about him, didn't you? The Raiders have pretty much forgotten about him too. He had lost the job to Lucas Nix last preseason prior to being lost for the season due to injury. His best hope former the former college offensive tackle turned guard is learning another new position.
"Bergstrom's going to be kind of a guard-center," said Allen. "He's played guard, that's where I really view him as. But I could see us putting him and trying to look at him as a center to see if he can do that."
The latest signing was that of Donald Penn. And for once, the Raiders said the former left tackle will actually play left tackle. In fact, Dennis Allen said Tuesday in an interview with the Bay Area News Group that left tackle and center are the only positions on the offensive line that are set.
"The one position I know is I know Wisniewski's going to be the center," said Allen. "Donald Penn will start off over on the left side."
So, that at least narrows down what would have been a considerable amount of possible starting combinations.
Based on what's been said by Dennis Allen and Reggie McKenzie, this is how the offensive line looks right now:
LT Donald Penn
LG Kevin Boothe/ Mike Brisiel/ Khalif Barnes
RG Austin Howard
RT Menelik Watson
A more ideal starting offensive line as I see it looks like this:
LT Donald Penn
LG Kevin Boothe
C Stefen Wisniewski
RG Mike Brisiel
RT Austin Howard
In my scenario Menelik Watson is the primary back up for both tackle spots with Khalif Barnes a utility backup at guard and tackle and a battle between Tony Bergstrom and Lamar Mady for the final backup center/guard spot.
This at very least offers a lot of options to be better prepared in case the Raiders again find themselves in need of injury replacements. Which, as Allen explains it, was the goal all along and the reason there has been such a heavy focus on offensive linemen in free agency.
"The idea really was to try to acquire as much talent up front as we possibly could and hopefully have some flexibility of guys that can play different positions."
For Reggie McKenzie's part, he enjoys not putting a specific position to most of their signings as a way of trying to keep other teams from having a better idea of where they will go in the draft.
At this point, there is still time to get it all settled which is certainly better than having to make these decisions on the fly as they did last season.