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Raiders film room: Andre James’ progression

Raiders’ center has dramatically improved as the year has gone on

Cincinnati Bengals v Las Vegas Raiders
Andre James
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

It comes with the territory of replacing a three-time Pro Bowler in Rodney Hudson and receiving a contract extension after making just one start, but Las Vegas Raiders’ center Andre James has been under the microscope this season.

A slow start didn’t exactly help James’ case as he was Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded center with a 40.8 mark through the first six weeks of the season. His run blocking grade (38.1) was also the worst at the position, he ranked in the bottom-10 for pressures allowed with 11 and was called for five penalties.

However, the UCLA product has done a complete 180 in the five games since then.

During that timeframe, he’s PFF’s second-highest graded center with an 81.7 grade and ranks fourth in run-blocking with an 84.0 mark, more than double his previous figures. Also, he’s inside the top-10 for pressures allowed with three, the same amount as Hudson, and is down to just two penalties.

While these numbers do a good job of outlining the picture of James’ development, we turn to the film to get the full imagery and fill in the blanks on where he’s improved.

Run blocking clips

We’ll start with the bad and this first clip comes from Week 4 against the Chargers. The Raiders are running a mid-zone where Josh Jacobs’ aiming point is the B gap between the left tackle and left guard. John Simpson and James are going to execute a combo block where Simpson is going to help James try to seal the nose tackle, Linval Joseph, on the way up to the backer.

Simpson could do a better job of helping James turn Joseph’s shoulders, but James is at least squared up with Joseph when Simpson leaves and should be able to finish the block. However, the center’s hands are late, his base is way too narrow at the point of contact and his feet stop. So, the defensive lineman is able to get to his chest and has a much more stable base, making shedding the block and making the play almost too easy.

I used the sideline angle for this next play since it makes it easier to see another major issue James had when run blocking.

Las Vegas is running a man-lead run concept which puts James one-on-one backside with the weak one-technique. When he attacks the defensive tackle, he has a habit of leaning/reaching and not bringing his feet with him.

That leads to an unstable base, making it nearly impossible to generate any sort of movement and causing the offensive lineman to lose ground. Plus, when Joseph goes to spin inside, James doesn’t have his feet underneath him to maintain control of the block or at least stay in front of the defender.

Here we’re going to see another example of how James’ leaning was an issue when run blocking. He’s on the front side of this split zone from the Raiders and has to block the nose tackle one-on-one. It’s a tough block to make since the nose is shaded to the play side in the Bronco’s under front but regardless, James’ technique gives him zero chance to execute the block.

He comes off the line of scrimmage a little too flat and should probably try and lose ground with his first step to get a better angle on the defensive lineman. Instead, he leans and reaches for the defender, causing his chest to come over his toes and eliminating any sort of base to generate the power needed to ride the defender’s hip out of the gap.

That makes it easy for No. 98 to slant and use a rip move to defeat the block and have a chance at a tackle for loss. Luckily, Josh Jacobs puts on a master class in how to make something out of nothing.

Here we’re going to see a great example of how James’ run blocking technique has improved.

The Raiders are running a lead zone on this clip and he and Alex Leatherwood are going to be responsible for the nose tackle and strong-side inside linebacker. Notice how the center isn’t leaning and has his feet underneath him at initial contact. He also has his hands inside and that combined with a strong base allows him and Leatherwood to push the defensive lineman into the linebacker that they’re also responsible for.

Even though this is a double team, it’s encouraging to see James fix his technique to maximize his power. That’s something to build off moving forward, especially if he adds some more strength in the offseason.

This next clip isn’t a dominating block by any means, but it is a quality rep and shows James’ improvement.

Notice his initial angle is much flatter than the clip we saw above and he actually loses some ground with his initial step. That, plus not leaning again, allows him to stay in front of the slanting zero-technique. The three-year pro also keeps his feet moving after contact with the defender, which allows him to stay engaged and help open up this cutback lane for Jacobs.

Let’s compare this next clip to the other one where James was trying to block the one-technique. Here, he actually has a more difficult block as the defensive tackle is shaded on the guard, but James is still working to get to the outside of the defender.

Off the snap, he fires off the ball and is much more aggressive at the point of attack. His hands are also on time and inside and the best part about this rep is he keeps his feet moving to finish the block and get vertical movement on the defender. Finishing blocks has been one of James’ biggest weaknesses as a run blocker and part of the reason why he struggles to stay engaged, so reps like this one are encouraging to see for his development.

Pass blocking clips

One of James’ biggest issues in general is a lack of upper body strength and this rep is a great example.

He works out to the three-technique to help pick up this blitz/stunt from the Chargers and does a good job of getting his hands on the pass rushers’ chest. The problem is the defensive tackle does a good job of getting his hands inside too, and he’s able to over-power James and turn his shoulders to get on an edge and force Derek Carr off his spot.

James’ base and lack of knee bend don’t help either, which also contributes to him getting out-muscled.

Here we’re going to see another example of how James’ lack of upper body strength has been an issue in pass protection.

This zero-technique nose doesn’t even fire off the ball and actually looks like he’s playing the run initially. James doesn’t take advantage of this by being aggressive with his punch to gain control of the block and the defensive lineman gets right to James’ chest when he does start to rush. From there, it’s just a matter of pure strength and with one hand, the defender over-powers James and prevents Carr from being able to finish this throw.

As the season has gone on, James has done a much better job of being more aggressive and faster with his punch. Notice on this play he snaps the ball and immediately shoots his left hand while his right is still between his legs. Even though he’s not all that forceful with his punch, it’s enough to at least slow the pass rusher’s momentum down.

From there, James keeps working his hands and has great footwork – which is one element of his game that has always been impressive – to give Carr a nice clean pocket to throw from. It’s also worth noting that James only loses about a yard of ground from his initial set.

In this next play, we’ll see another example of James’ improved use of hands and base to help him anchor as a pass protector. Again, he gets his hands involved early in the rep and he’s always had good placement with them, so that’s going to help him steer and control the pass rusher.

The other aspect of this rep that I like to see from the center is his knee bend. While he could afford to be a little lower, he’s playing a lot less stiff-legged than what we saw previously and that helps him keep a nice powerful base and widen the defender. That’s a quality rep and something to build off moving forward.