There’s a lot of excitement building around the Raiders offense. Next season, they’ll have one of the best overall receivers in the league in Davante Adams to team up with one of the top tight ends in Darren Waller and one of the top slot receivers in Hunter Renfrow. The trio should be a nightmare for secondaries to match up against. However, quarterback Derek Carr might have his own nightmares if the offensive line doesn’t play better than it did last season.
The Raiders didn’t sign any potential starters in free agency and didn’t have a high enough pick in the draft to pick a player who can be penciled in as a Day-1 starter although it’s certainly possible that one of their picks or undrafted free agents emerges as a starter. In my opinion, third-round pick Dylan Parham will have a legitimate chance at the competition at center but barring a major trade, the Raiders will go into the 2022 season with mostly the same offensive line.
“I think we have a lot of players there that are not at their ceiling yet,” head coach Josh McDaniels said in March. “I feel pretty good about the group that we have, and now our job in the short term here is to try to coach them, get them to play better, each group, each man to play better, and that’s what I’ll focus on.”
Is McDaniels’ faith in this group’s potential warranted or is he just driveling coach speak? I sat down and watched film with retired NFL coach Mike Tice to get his opinion on the Raiders starting offensive line at the end of last season and whether he thinks it can improve. Tice coached in the NFL for 22 years, including four seasons as the Vikings head coach. He was widely regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the league when he coached the Raiders offensive line from 2015-17.
Tice was very complimentary of Miller’s pass sets but thought he could continue to add weight and play lower. Miller is the Raiders’ best and most consistent pass blocker, playing the most high-value position on the offensive line. He is a borderline star and reaches that status with some added strength. There is no need for an upgrade here.
LG John Simpson
Watching Simpson, he was all over the place with this technique, footwork and hand placement. To put it nicely, Tice was not a fan of Simpson and there was just way too many negative plays in the games that we watched. He should be replaced by Denzelle Good, who tore his ACL last season.
Center Andre James
James came into the league as a tackle but moved to center in 2019. Before last season, he only started one game, filling in for former starter Rodney Hudson in 2019. He was being developed in practice to eventually take over since then. Last offseason, the Raiders traded Hudson to the Cardinals and showed their faith in James with a three-year extension. However, James struggled out of the gate. He played better as the season progressed but even in the wild-card game against the Bengals, his performance left a lot to be desired.
Wild-card game, 11:40 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10
Here, James was matched up on Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader. The Raiders were in a man protection, so he had Reader one-on-one.
“Center is a problem. He just spreads his feet and he just hops around,” Tice said. “He needs really good technique if he’s going to be that small.”
James is a taller, lighter center at 6-4, 300 pounds. He has to come off the ball with some authority but too often he just hops and spreads his feet too wide and is unable to fire off. On this play, his first few steps are hop steps. He can’t strike with force out of this position.
“I call this wrestling,” Tice said. “He doesn’t strike, he just likes torquing guys.”
Instead of coming off the ball and striking Reader, James leaned into him and tried to use his weight to roll him to the ground.
He wasn’t cleanly beat on this play, but a faster defensive tackle would have easily slipped past him with how much weight he had leaning forward. Carr quickly got rid of the ball but Reader was right there in his lap.
Wild-card game, 13:34 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10
Here, the Raiders were in a slide protection. The offensive line was sliding to linebacker Logan Wilson (No. 55), meaning James would have to block him if he blitzed.
“If he stayed square a little longer, and not favor the side of the call backer — obviously the call backer was to the left because you look at the center’s eyes,” Tice explained.
Essentially, James wasn’t being patient enough. Wilson didn’t blitz, so James was free to help, but he was a little too eager to help Simpson to his left.
“He should sit in the hole and when the right guard gets beat on the game, he’d be right there,” Tice said. “He doesn’t need to help there because that guy is on the outside of the left guard. Again, that’s coaching, there are different ways of doing it. I’m just telling you how I would do it.”
Tice believes James could develop into an adequate starter if he improves his footwork. In my opinion, he did get better throughout last season but not enough to feel comfortable penciling him as a starter without competition. As mentioned, the Raiders drafted Parham, who is projected to convert from guard to center in the NFL, in the third round. If James doesn’t take a big step in his development this offseason, Parham could supplant him.
Parker was inserted into the starting lineup after Week 4 because 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood was struggling outside. Parker was a third-round pick in 2018. He’s mostly struggled in his starts but had a couple of well-played games in 2020. Last season, he was an upgrade over Leatherwood but still allowed eight sacks in 13 starts.
“There’s a lot worse than 75 in the league,” Tice said. “I can tell you that right now.”
Tice suggests that Parker is in the below-average to average starter range. His length and athletic ability show up on film but some of the same technical problems pop up over and over again — he stacks his feet on his pass set and keeps his hands too low.
Week 17, 0:56 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10
Here, Parker was matched up with Joey Bosa.
On Parker’s second step in his pass set, he put his back foot directly behind his front foot.
“That’s called stacking and that’s not good,” Tice said. “What happens when you do that is you don’t have any space between your legs and you have to get yourself in balance before you could change directions, so it’s wasted movements. Jackie Slater did that and he’s in the Hall of Fame but he’s no Jackie Slater.”
Because Parker put himself in an unathletic body position, he had to lunge at Bosa. To make matters worse, his hands were too low and he punched late and couldn’t get any power behind his hands. Bosa easily slipped past him because his feet were in no position to move and he couldn’t use his length because his hands were late.
Overall, Tice seemed to think that Parker has some ability but is concerned that the same technical issues kept showing up– one of them is needing to be more violent with his hands. For a player that was in his fourth year, he should have cleaner fundamentals. Is he just not coachable? Raiders offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo will soon find out.
OL Alex Leatherwood
“I’m a fan of his” was a phrase Tice repeated about Leatherwood throughout our film sessions. In his final two games at guard, there was more good than bad. Tice liked his body angles, ability to bend, violence and competitive nature. He made some big strides at guard, particularly as a run blocker, but the question is: Can he kick back out to right tackle where he was drafted to play?
Though Leatherwood was one of the worst starting tackles in the league before being benched, some context is needed. In the four games he started there, he faced off against Bosa and T.J. Watt and he had to face the Ravens and Dolphins, two of the most blitz-heavy teams in the league. There seemed to be a bit of a snowball effect with the challenges he faced and it resulted in his benching after Week 4.
Week 4, 9:01 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10
Here, against the Chargers, Leatherwood was matched up against Bosa.
Tice believes in teaching tackles to keep their front foot perpendicular to the line of scrimmage on their first three steps in their set. Leatherwood was patient and stayed perpendicular for the first two steps of his set. In the image, you can see the good body angles that Tice talked about in his hips and knees.
On Leatherwood’s third step, he panicked as Bosa got close and completely turned toward the sideline.
“Right now, he’s turned toward the sideline and leans with his shoulders,” Tice said. “He needs to keep himself in balance. He’s a good athlete but he needs to play athletic. He just got himself out of whack there.”
Against an elite rusher, if you turn toward the sideline, they are going to take the inside lane. That is exactly what Bosa did. He spun inside and Leatherwood had to hold him with his inside arm. Luckily for him, Carr got rid of the ball and no flag was thrown. Though it did look like Leatherwood progressively got sloppier with his technique as the game progressed, Tice noted that he thought that Leatherwood wasn’t afraid and kept battling.
“You’re not going to have to worry about 70. Can he move back outside? Maybe. But he’s going to be OK,” Tice said.
Of course, Tice wouldn’t be able to give a definitive answer on whether Leatherwood can move back outside to tackle without seeing the progress he made in the offseason but he thinks he can at least be a good guard based on what he saw.
Right now, the only offensive linemen that look to have starting spots secured are Miller and Good, assuming his recovery from ACL surgery is going as planned. The rest of the line is influx. James will battle Parham. Leatherwood should get another look at tackle unless Parker makes a big jump coming into his fifth year. If Leatherwood starts, Jermaine Eluemunor, who played for McDaniels in New England, will have a chance to start at right guard. Without many avenues left for acquiring another starter, getting this line to reach its ceiling with the players on the roster will be imperative, as the AFC West features a gauntlet of elite pass-rushing duos.
(Top photo of Kolton Miller: Chris Unger / Getty Images)