Once free agency began last offseason, the Raiders went after offensive linemen first and foremost. They didn't have much choice, really. After letting Jared Veldheer leave for Arizona, watching Lucas Nix show he was the worst guard in all of football, and Mike Brisiel's injuries pile up, they were without a left tackle, left guard, and right guard respectively.
In the moments after free agency hit, they were ready to sign free agent Rodger Saffold, presumably to replaced Veldheer at left tackle. That contract was voided when, as it turned out, the injury prone Saffold was (surprise!) injured. That same night, the Raiders signed their second offensive lineman, Austin Howard.
Then offensive line coach Tony Sparano had coached Howard for one season with the Jets in 2012. At the time the 6-7, 333-pounder was a right tackle and Sparano saw great potential in him as a guard.
Sparano's one season in New York was Howard's best season as a right tackle. His specialty was run blocking. His pass blocking was not all that good. It's the reason Sparano saw him as a better fit at guard.
So, the Raiders made a pretty big investment in him as one of the few young players they signed last offseason as the longterm answer at guard.
That experiment didn't quite pan out as the Raiders had hoped.
At one point during the season, he was just about the worst starting guard in the NFL. As of week 10, his Pro Football Focus grade was -18.1. Had he continued on that pace, he would have finished the season at -32.1 which would have been just a half point ahead of being the worst guard in the NFL just as Lucas Nix was the previous season (-43.8).
Howard didn't continue on that pace, however. He managed to finish the season putting some decent games together, one of which earned him his only Baller mention of the season and per those same PFF rankings, was the 59th ranked guard out of 78 possible.
But even in those weeks at the end of the season where he wasn't abysmal, it was his run blocking that saved his grade, His pass blocking was as bad as ever.
In those final seven games last season, he gave up 4 sacks, one hit, and 9 QB hurries. The other interesting fact about those final seven games is that was when the team finally put Latavius Murray in the game. So, did Murray make his linemen look better or was it Darren McFadden who was making them look worse? That argument could go on for a while with no one conceding.
Now the man who thought Howard would make for a great guard is no longer with the Raiders (Tony Sparano), so the question becomes if the Raiders think it best to perhaps consider moving Howard back to right tackle.
The whole reason we are even having this discussion is less to do with Howard than it is to do with Menelik Watson.
Watson was the team's round two pick in 2013 and was to be the team's right tackle. Not only has he not been able to stay healthy, but when he has been healthy, he has not played well.
There was a five-game stretch last season in which Watson was so bad, he finished ranked as one of the worst offensive tackles in all of football. He gave up 2 sacks and 18 QB hurries... in just five games. You would think after a year and a half in the NFL, even with the injuries he would have shown some potential by now.
What the Raiders are left with is a few options.
They can, of course, stand pat; hope that Howard's not-horrific play late last season is a sign he will continue to improve as a guard and give Watson one more shot at being the starter at right tackle. They re-signed Khalif Barnes for another season so if Watson falters, Barnes can step in and they can address the issue next offseason.
If they don't want to go with what they currently have, they can wait to see what comes available in free agency and/or the draft and plan accordingly. If they can grab a solid right guard, Howard and Watson can battle it out for the right tackle job. If they can bring in a right tackle, Howard can stay at guard and Watson can be depth or perhaps even see how he performs as utility depth.
Cutting Howard is not really an option. Making him a backup may not be either. He currently represents the second highest cap hit on the team at $6.4 million. Cutting him now would leave behind $5.6 million in dead money.
From this vantage point, it would seem if you want a guard, draft one in the mid-rounds. That's what they did last season when they drafted Gabe Jackson and it has turned out well so far.
With Jackson showing well in camp, the team decided their best group was to have him starting at left guard and Khalif Barnes at right tackle with Watson coming off the bench. They could do that again with a rookie at right guard and Howard at right tackle.
As with many positions, there's a lot to think about. But it is something that MUST be given a great deal of thought because the right side of that offensive line was atrocious last season and Howard was a big reason why. Doing nothing could prove to be a big mistake.