Last week on Upon Further Review with my guy Eddie Paskal, I made an analogy I feel describes the current state of the revitalized Raiders offensive line.
It's similar to being in high school when your upperclassmen players graduate or transfer and you now have to depend on your JV players to step up and keep the ship afloat. One of the biggest questions surrounding the Raiders' season is if the young offensive linemen will be able to keep things going amid the drastic change to the starting core.
The Raiders chose to get a lot younger at the offensive line this offseason. The initial falling domino was trading right tackle Trent Brown to the New England Patriots after playing 16 out of 32 games in his tenure with the Raiders. Then All-Pro center Rodney Hudson, 32, was traded to the Arizona Cardinals, and lastly Raiders' 2014 third-round pick Gabe Jackson was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
Out of all the position groups on the roster, there may be the most active competition at this one. The Raiders re-signed 2019 undrafted free agent Andre James after trading away Hudson. The UCLA product battled through much adversity to get his shot at playing for the Raiders, playing through his father's death in college and making the roster against all odds. James still has to battle for the starting spot at center with free-agent signing Nick Martin – who started every game the previous three seasons with the Houston Texans. Going into his third season with the team, James has the admiration and respect of a couple of his teammates, who are proud of the obstacles he's overcome to get to this point.
"It was awesome seeing him get picked up here undrafted," said Kolton Miller, who was teammates with James at UCLA before they both came to the Raiders. "That guy just came to work every day, picked up as much as he could from Rodney. You can see he already had the footwork, already had the fundamentals, he just needed to fine-tune some of the smaller stuff. He's come along a great way. I'm excited for the season. I'm excited for the competition coming up to see what he does."
Richie Incognito, going into his 15th NFL season, shared the same sentiment about James – who he has taken under his wing.
"First and foremost, Andre is a great dude," Incognito said during OTAs. "He's a great guy; he's a hard worker; he's humble; he's hungry. He's got position flexibility. He played tackle in college and then got to the league and played center. I go back to 2019 when Rod [Hudson] went down, and Andre had to come in the game in Houston, and we didn't miss a beat. We were hammering them with the ball, we were running on them, we were making a comeback late and Andre stepped in the next week in Detroit and he played at a high level.
"He's a hard-working kid. He's passionate. He's from humble beginnings, being an undrafted guy, so I'm excited to see him go."
Along with James, the Raiders will depend a lot on their 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood out of Alabama. Leatherwood was a two-time National Champion at Alabama and a first-team All-American and Outland Trophy winner. Leatherwood was appointed Brown's replacement at starting right tackle by General Manager Mike Mayock the day he was drafted, and he's excited to use the opportunity to prove himself as a dominant force for years to come.
"I feel like I bring a great skillset," Leatherwood said during his introductory conference call. "I have all the intangibles, great length, great speed, great athleticism. All of that good stuff. ... I'm just happy and excited to be a Raider, and I'm going to be the best at whatever position I play."
To round out the rest of the starting offensive line, Miller, Incognito and Denzelle Good appear as if they're locked in. Miller has dramatically improved in his three seasons as a Raider, going from allowing 16 sacks and 65 total pressures his rookie year to just two sacks in the 2020 season. The left tackle was rewarded with a multi-year extension this offseason, solidifying himself as a building block of the Silver and Black for the foreseeable future.
Guards Incognito and Good have also made themselves proven commodities for the offensive line, as four-time Pro Bowler Incognito is healthy and back with the team after missing the majority of last season with a foot injury. Good saw a lot of action last season all over the offensive line, filling in for numerous injuries. He started 14 games and only allowed two sacks while playing three different positions. Good will face stiff competition from second-year player John Simpson, who started two games his rookie season and was a consensus All-American at Clemson University.
Quarterback Derek Carr will have the pressure of working with a new starting offense as he acknowledged during minicamp that this will be the first time in six seasons he's had a different center. However, he has confidence and familiarity with many of the linemen who will be expected to step up in the absence of his old comrades.
"Trust-wise, we've had a lot of injuries on our offensive line throughout the years, so I've played with a lot of these guys already," said Carr. "It's not like I'm looking at new faces that I've never seen before. I've played with these guys. Especially with the caliber of players they are. They're really good football players, and we have [offensive line] Coach [Tom] Cable. He's going to make sure we're ready to play."
The offensive linemen with the most to prove during Training Camp are Nick Martin, John Simpson and Brandon Parker. Parker and Simpson were both mid-round draft picks thrown into trenches last year due to injuries. While both played well with the opportunities given to them and have high upside, they'll have to continue to take a leap this offseason as they will be depended on for depth of the line.
Martin also has a chance to establish himself not only as a threat to Andre James at starting center, but as a leader of the team. Whether James becomes the starter or not, Martin will be essential in the development of the young center, who previously had Rodney Hudson to guide him.
And watch for Miller to continue the breakout party he began last season. The 25-year-old has confidence in himself, improved footwork and is on a path to become a Pro Bowler in 2022.
View photos of the Las Vegas Raiders offensive line heading into 2021 Training Camp.