This Raiders team is still piecing together. Most of that work began last year and continued this offseason. Few areas on the team are completely solidified. That includes the offensive line, but when you look at the left side of that line, it could be one of the better trios in the NFL.
"That left side, with [Donald Penn] and Gabe [Jackson] and then Rodney [Hudson], that left side is very strong." Jack Del Rio said Tuesday.
He's right to be excited about the left side of this line. Penn and Jackson were put in place last offseason - Penn as a left tackle replacement for the departed Jared Veldheer, and Jackson as the team's third round draft pick at guard. They upgraded the group with the addition of Rodney Hudson who replaces Stefen Wisniewski at center.
Penn and Jackson were one of only a handful of positives last season on a team that started out 0-10 and finished 3-13. They were the one part of that offensive line that were actually playing well, both against the run and the pass.
That standout play was a bit of a surprise considering Penn was a 31-year-old castoff from the Buccaneers after being charged with the second most sacks (12) in the league and Gabe Jackson was a third round rookie.
Part of the problem for Penn in Tampa that season was who was playing next to him at left guard -- namely that they had four different starting left guards. Having good linemates is vitally important with an offensive line, more so than people realize. The adage ‘you are only as strong as your weakest link' holds very true.
In that regard, the play of Gabe Jackson last season was key, and will continue to be so. I asked Penn recently about his rookie linemate, and he glowed about him.
"Aw man Gabe is like a little brother, man," said Penn. "I'm smiling talking about Gabe because Gabe doesn't know how good he could be. He's a great player. I love playing next to him. He's one of those guys that wants to learn and he's like a sponge, he soaks it up. He listens to everything I have to tell him and he asks a lot of questions. I felt like he just kept getting better and better throughout the year and I feel like he's gonna be in the future one of the top left guards in this league."
Now Penn and Jackson have one more solid piece as the Raiders build down the line. The team made Rodney Hudson they top free agent acquisition. He completes the left side strength for the team, giving Penn that much more to be happy about.
"He fits right in," Penn said of Hudson. "He's a jokester just like us. Me and Khalif [Barnes], we stay on him, we go back and forth, but he's a great athlete. He's gonna be big for us in that middle. He's putting us in the right spot. He's great in space, you know, when he gets out in space, he's very athletic. He's a big part of this offensive line. . . He's gonna man that middle and we're gonna follow his lead."
Tuesday, following OTA practice, Penn spoke of he and Barnes being the veteran leaders on the Raiders offensive line. The 33-year-old Barnes is entering his seventh season with the team and has played all along the offensive line as the team has struggled to find a good combination as well as long term answers.
As the utility OL, Barnes is plugged in where needed. That spot is now right guard. Austin Howard played there last season to less than desirable results, so he is being moved to right tackle.
There is a lot of uncertainty with those two leading the way on the right side.
"We have a big, strong offensive line, so we want to impose our will this year," Penn added. "We did that at times last year, but we need to do it on a more consistent basis. That's the plan going out."
Having the left 3/5 of the offensive line shored up is a great start.