Francis Okupa, KweséESPN 77d

'Sky's the limit' for rising Raiders - Kelechi Osemele

Oakland Raiders

When Nigerian-American offensive guard Kelechi Osemele left the Baltimore Ravens during free agency in the summer of 2016 few would have predicted the Oakland Raiders would land the rising young lineman.

The Ravens had made the playoffs in six of their last eight seasons, including a Super Bowl win in 2013. The Raiders hadn't reached the postseason since 2002 and were coming off a 7-9 season.

However, Oakland were giving hints of a possible bright future as bold moves were being made by Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who signed a four-year contract extension in July last year.

Osemele was one of a few who saw what the Raiders were becoming. As he reflected on his free agency move, Osemele told KweséESPN this month: "I had a conversation with my agent talking about personnel and the guys that are on each team.

"I had the opportunity to be on this team or be on the Vikings and I felt like both teams had quarterbacks that were young and had a lot of potential. But this team had offensive line pieces that I felt I would've fit in with more and been more comfortable with."

Signing a $60 million, five-year contract with the Bay Area side, Osemele instantly became a major building block of one of the NFL's more highly regarded offensive lines. Tasked with protecting quarterback Derek Carr, Osemele and his offensive linemates played their part en route to a 12-4 record for the Raiders, to go along with a wild card playoff spot.

Oakland fans envisioned the team going all the way to the AFC Championship game and possibly the Super Bowl, but all it took was one play in week 16 against the Indianapolis Colts to end those dreams.

Carr suffered a broken fibula after being sacked by then-Colts linebacker Trent Cole, and saw his season end right before the playoffs began. Talking about the injury to his quarterback, Osemele reflected: "When your franchise QB goes down, it's kind of hard not to think about [what could have been].

"We're just happy that he's healthy. It's a new year. We take pride in protecting him and it's not gonna happen again."

Osemele added: "There's no question that we could've gone further if we had a healthy quarterback. I think that we have the ingredients to take this thing all the way. What we need obviously is to play great defense because defense wins championships. We also need to continue to be a physical offense."

When the NFL season is not underway, Osemele likes to see the world. His parents are from Nigeria and despite being born in Houston, Texas, the former Iowa State University player spent most of his summers going to Nigeria to visit relatives.

He recounts: "I went back every year until my 17th birthday. My grandma lives in Abuja so we'd go back and visit a lot. I haven't been since college started but I used to go back every summer. [To] Benin, Abuja and Lagos.

"We went to Benin because I think my dad had a business there. Abuja is where we visited my grandmother and it might have been my grandfather on my mom's side up in Benin (city) at the time too."

Seeing more of the world is something Osemele would like to do with more regularity but he would particularly like to visit South Africa, he says. Several NFL players have made trips there in recent years and Osemele would like to add the Rainbow Nation to the list of countries he has experienced.

Now though, with a healthy Carr and the addition of former All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch (back after a one-year hiatus), his focus is on the field, with the Raiders offense stocked with talent and ready to complete what they started last season. They are off to a 2-1 start, despite a disappointing loss in Washington on Sunday night.

Osemele has played his part in opening running lanes for Lynch so far this season and he can see the slight differences between blocking for Lynch as opposed to other running backs he has blocked for.

"Marshawn is just a much bigger, much more physical running back. [He's] going to try to push for those extra yards. I guess it's basically having another offensive lineman where there's a guy that's just that physical," Osemele says.

"You don't really see running backs running over defensive tackles and continuing up the field. I think the difference isn't in the mentality because I think there's a lot of physical backs in the league. It's just the fact that Marshawn is just that type of special player where he's just that overpowering of a back that it's going to be hard to tackle him one on one."

The Raiders have even higher goals now after their playoff appearance last season. Osemele recognizes the last campaign as a stepping stone toward where he believes the team can get to.

He adds: "I think we're just scratching the surface right now. Derek is just continuing to grow. The offense is continuing to grow, the sky is really the limit. I think we're really just getting started right now. We're not where we need to be but I'm confident in the players we do have. We have a lot of talent, we just have to go out there and put it together on a consistent basis."

As the lone member of the Raiders offensive line with a Super Bowl ring, Osemele knows what it takes to get to the big game and leave with the trophy. If the Raiders' offensive line helps clear the path to another playoff appearance, Osemele will see the fruition of his decision to go west.

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