Last offseason the Raiders added former Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn. This offseason they added a Pro Bowl caliber center in Rodney Hudson. But it may just be the man between them who has the brightest future ahead of him.
Gabe Jackson was the team's third round pick in 2014. Most of the talk about that draft surrounds Khalil Mack at fifth overall and Derek Carr at the top of the second round. They are considered two cornerstones to the Raiders team at the glamorous positions of pass rusher and quarterback.
In all the ‘franchise player' discussion surrounding Mack and Carr it's easy to forget about the offensive guard taken in the following round. That is unless you are one of Jackson's fellow offensive linemen.
Donald Penn had a resurgent season in 2014. Part of his down year in 2013 was due to a lot of turnover at the left guard spot and not great play at that position. Therefore no one would understand just how key Jackson was to the offensive line last season and going forward. When asked about Jackson, Penn glowed.
"Gabe is like a little brother, man," said Penn. "I'm smiling talking about Gabe because Gabe doesn't know how good he can be. He's a great player. I love playing next to him. He's one of those guys that wants to learn. He's like a sponge and soaks it up. He listens to everything I tell him and he asks a lot of questions. I felt like he kept getting better and better throughout the year. And I feel like he's gonna be one of the top left guards in this league to come because he has that much potential. And he's a good guy and a good player and I can't wait until [the season] to play next to him and see him progress with a year under his belt."
The feeling is mutual from Jackson toward the man to his left and he couldn't say enough about how much Penn has meant to his development as a young player.
"I don't know where to start," said Jackson. "He's like a mentor, a friend, a brother, a uncle, all that. He took me in when I first got here and for a guy like him that has been here so long, it's like, you know, what do you get out of taking care of a young guy. You done got what you pretty much wanted for these years. You done got your foundation, you done played so many games, so it just amazed me that he took the time out to help me out like he did and just to take me under his wing and show me the right way how to do things and what to expect."
Rodney Hudson has yet to play in a game with Jackson, but his experience with Jackson thus far has been similar, saying of his new linemate; "Really good player. Young guy, smart player. He listens. He pays attention to the detail and he's always trying to learn."
Having two players like Penn and Hudson, who have been among the best in the NFL at their positions say such things about Jackson is humbling for the young guard. Though Jackson has gone about his business earning their praise.
"It means a lot," said Jackson. "Both of them have experience and have been playing a while and they trust in me to get my job done and to be there when they need me. They know I believe in them and they're gonna be there for me and they're gonna do the right thing and if they don't they're gonna try their best."
Jackson started from day one last season due to the team's need at the left guard position. And outside of a few games he missed midseason, he remained there the entire season. In those 13 starts he showed himself to be a solid pass blocker and a mauling run blocker.
The evidence of him winning the battles at the line of scrimmage came in the form of Latavius Murray's breakout late in the season with many of those runs going through Jackson's position. And in the passing game, Jackson was charged with giving up just one sack on the season. He was rated as the second best guard in the division by Pro Football Focus, behind only veteran offensive lineman Orlando Franklin.
Now to take his game to the next level, the 6-3, 335-pounder has set forth turning his weight into muscle. And his regimen has shown up on the practice field, where he regularly dominates battles at the line of scrimmage.
"I went about a better approach than I did in the past," said Jackson. "I guess eating healthier. Just try to watch the amount that I eat. Try to keep that down. But just overall eating better than I have in the past."
"I feel stronger, I'll say that. I feel I can do more things better overall. Instead of just being a good run blocker, I can move better and I'm more mobile."
Jackson's new head coach Jack Del Rio faced him twice last season as the Broncos' defensive coordinator, so he knows how good he is and therefore has shown complete confidence in the left side of the line.
"Not really surprised because we played against him (with Denver)," Del Rio said of Jackson. "I just think he's a good young player. He's very quiet, goes about his business. He's a very powerful guy. He's got a good balance, with the ability to pull and change directions and he's powerful so he's a good football player.
A stronger, faster Gabe Jackson should be a scary thought for opposing linemen who already had difficulty matching up with him. In turn it is an exciting thought for the Raiders who could be looking at their long term answer at left guard with visions of his Pro Bowl potential.