When the Las Vegas Raiders reported to training camp last week, their two starting guard spots were expected to be notable storylines as both jobs were up for grabs, and that intensified after Denzelle Good’s unexpectedly retired on Monday.
Many people, myself included, had Good penciled in as a starter heading into camp, but now any projections for the Raiders' offensive line are convoluted.
So, now that the seven-year veteran has called it a career, who are Las Vegas’ contenders to fill the two vacancies on the interior of the o-line?
Simpson is now the only returning Week 1 starter but was in that position because of Richie Incognito’s injury. The 2020 fourth-round pick did start every game last season, making him one of the most-experienced contenders, but he also struggled mightily as a run blocker last season.
With a 45.9 PFF run blocking grade a year ago, Simpson was the third-worst guard (min. 132 run snaps) in the ground game. The silver lining is he has always been considered a better fit in a gap system, which Josh McDaniels has heavily leaned on in the past, so he might get a boost from the scheme change. However, he’ll need to improve in that department as well after posting a 38.0 grade on 118 gap run opportunities.
While there’s still room for improvement, Simpson was better in pass protection in 2021. He earned a 64.1 grade in that realm and allowed 40 pressures – three sacks – which ranked 39th and tied for 74th at the position, respectively.
The latter figure might seem underwhelming, but he notched the 10th-most snaps in pass protection, so volume was a major factor. Also, he finished the year strong, recording six pass-blocking grades of 70 or higher in the team’s last nine contests, four of which were in the 80s, and he only allowed one sack and 17 pressures during that same timeframe.
Despite being with the organization for the last four years, Cotton is quite the enigma. He’s bounced between the practice squad and active roster after signing as an undrafted free agent but only has a handful of regular season snaps under his belt.
The Alabama product has been active in the preseason though, racking up 48 run blocking snaps and 92 in pass protection last year. That netted him an impressive 74.0 grade as a road grader, which ranked 22nd among preseason guards, but it was a different story as a pass blocker where he notched an ugly 32.2 grade and yielded five pressures – one sack. The good news is Cotton earned a 71.1 pass-blocking grade back in 2019, so it’s just a matter of him putting it together, and he’s reportedly taking the first team reps early on in camp this time around.
Lester Cotton Sr. has been leading the way for the #Raiders at right guard throughout training camp so far. With Denzelle Good retiring, Cotton and John Simpson stand as the top guards with Dylan Parham pushing them for reps.— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) July 25, 2022
Then there’s the rookie, who has experience playing both left and right guard during his senior, sophomore and freshman campaigns in college.
While playing right guard last season, he was one of the most efficient pass protectors in the country with just 10 pressures surrendered – zero sacks – and a 99.0 efficiency rating that ranked tied for 17th among FBS guards. For those curious, he posted an 84.5 pass-blocking grade that was tied for the 12th-best.
Parham did struggle a bit more at protecting the quarterback on the left side, though. As a freshman and sophomore, he allowed 43 pressures and eight sacks on 868 opportunities and earned grades of 75.9 and 68.1, respectively. Granted, youth and inexperience played a factor during those two seasons.
As for run blocking, it was more of the same from the Memphis product. He led all American Conference guards with a 79.2 run-blocking grade last year, and posted marks of 70.8 and 73.7 in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
In other words, the rookie has been a consistent performer and could be a prime candidate to step in and start right away.
When Good went down early in the season opener last year, Eluemunor came off the bench and filled in. He played the majority of that game and the following three contests and fared well in pass protection, recording a 67.0 grade and allowing five pressures with zero sacks on 168 opportunities.
The problem was his run blocking, where he earned a sub-par 52.4-mark which was highlighted by a 29.0 performance against Cam Hayward and the rest of the Steelers defensive line. After another below-average performance against the Chargers in Week 4, Eluemunour was sent to the bench and didn’t step foot onto the field outside of special teams for the rest of the year.
One thing the former Patriot does have going for him is experience playing for McDaniels. Lining up at left and right tackle for 419 total snaps in 2020, Eluemunour earned grades of 63.4 and 70.3 as a run and pass blocker, respectively. He barely played the year before but those extra reps and familiarity in the system could serve him well, especially early on in training camp when everyone else is learning the playbook for the first time.
Eluemunour is also expected to compete for reps at tackle, which could also play a factor.
Speaking of guard/tackle combos, Leatherwood is another option on the interior for the Silver and Black.
I’ll spare the details since I’m sure everyone reading knows the story of his rookie season, going from tackle to guard in a matter of four weeks. However, that had more to do with hiding his flaws in pass protection as he was a solid run blocker.
The biggest questions will be if Leatherwood has improved enough to keep the quarterback clean, and how exactly did he get better? If his footwork/footspeed is up to snuff, the coaching staff might want to keep him outside as there’s an open competition at right tackle in camp as well. But if his punch or use of hands has gotten stronger while his feet remained the same, or marginally improved, then one of the two guard spots could be his.
Probably the most interesting case in this study is Munford. He exclusively played tackle from 2017 to 2020 at Ohio State, and his 2020 campaign was dominant.
The Buckeye only allowed three pressures all season – zero sacks – en route to an 87.6 pass-blocking grade that was tied for sixth-best (with Parham) among FBS tackles. He also ranked seventh with an elite 90.3 grade as a run blocker. However, Munford asked the coaching staff to move inside for his final year of eligibility last season.
Granted, he did split time between the two positions but 554 of his 704 total snaps came at guard to just 150 at tackle. While it was somewhat expected with the position change, the seventh-round pick saw a dramatic dip in his grades with a 76.1 mark in the ground game and a 66.3 in pass protection.
Hopefully, that year of experience at guard will help Munford transition to the NFL, but his future might be better suited on the outside if history tells us anything.
Alex Bars and Jordan Meredith
Bars and Meredith are both longshots to win the camp competition and both haven’t seen the field much, so I’ll lump them together to save some time.
After going undrafted in 2019, Bars has been a backup offensive lineman with Chicago where he got regular-season snaps at all five positions. Last year, he took 45 reps at tackle and 47 more as an additional blocker at tight end, posting a solid run blocking mark of 63.5 but struggling as a pass protector with a 19.8 grade.
However, the former Bear did log about nine starts at guard two years ago while filling in for an injured starter. He ended the campaign with two sub-par grades of 51.9 and 57.3 as a run blocker and pass protector, respectively.
As for Meredith, he was an undrafted free agent in 2021 and signed with the Los Angeles Rams. He struggled in pass protection during the preseason with a 27.9 grade – three pressures allowed – but did stand out as a run blocker with a 70.6 mark. The Rams didn’t keep him on the roster after training camp, so he still doesn’t have an experience in the games that count.
Here’s what NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein had to say about the Western Kentucky product coming out of college.
Smaller, short-armed interior lineman who might require a camp shift to center due to his physical limitations. He’s an above-average run blocker with very good feel for angles and landmarks when asked to block on the move. He has the potential to compete in power, gap and zone schemes based on his ability. His lack of size and length shows up more in pass protection than it does in the run game. He’s likely to struggle in finding the range to protect his gaps in pass protection and his redirection for recovery blocks is just average. He’s unlikely to be drafted but could be a competitive addition in camp.