ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Was it not just a year ago that the Oakland Raiders were seen as returning one of the best, most physically intimidating offensive lines in the NFL?
A unit with three Pro Bowlers in left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Kelechi Osemele, who was also named All Pro, and center Rodney Hudson with a rising star in right guard Gabe Jackson had added capable right tackle Marshall Newhouse in free agency and reinforcements in the 2017 draft in David Sharpe and Jylan Ware.
And yet …
Whether it was because of a change of scheme, age, Penn’s training camp holdout, the arrival of Marshawn Lynch or simply some bad juju picked up in Washington, D.C. in Week 3, the line just was not the same in 2017.
Derek Carr, who had been kept clean in 2016 until a Penn slip contributed to a season-ending broken right leg on Christmas Eve, took hits aplenty in 2017, the quarterback breaking three bones in his back in Week 4.
Yes, Jon Gruden took notice, and took action, using two of the Raiders’ first three draft picks on offensive tackles in UCLA’s Kolton Miller at No. 15 overall and North Carolina A&T’s Brandon Parker with the first pick of the third round. Even with the likes of Penn, Sharpe, Ware, Vadal Alexander and Denver Kirkland still on the roster, and the Raiders having signed Breno Giacomini in free agency (Alexander, it should be noted, was slapped with a four-game suspension on May 1 for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances).
“We need guys that can block, and we addressed that today,” Gruden said during the draft. “And we have a quarterback, I think, that’s one hell of a football player, and it’s a priority to protect him. He’s been hurt the last two years and it bothers me.”
The 6-foot-8, 309-pound Miller signed his rookie contract on Friday, and as of Sunday night, Parker was one of the Raiders’ three draft picks to remain unsigned. In rookie minicamp and the team’s offseason training program, Miller has been working at left tackle and Parker at right tackle with offensive line Tom Cable coaching them up.
“Well, they’re young players,” Gruden said. “Obviously, Brandon comes from North Carolina A&T and hasn’t seen the high level of competition that he’s going to see when he comes here. Kolton Miller is an underclassman. So, we have a maturation that has to take place, obviously, but like I said, we have, I think, very good mentors in place with Donald Penn and Breno Giacomini.
“… You cannot call plays without offensive tackles. You can’t do it. And we need depth and we’ve got to be better on the edge. Without Donald Penn last year and with issues at right tackle, we struggled to score in the last four games … we felt it was a priority and we’re happy with how we addressed it.”
And starting Tuesday in Oakland’s first OTA practices, we will see how they fit in a more organized setting, even as Penn, 35, is still recovering from Lisfranc surgery on his right foot and is not expected to be a full go until training camp in late July.
Miller said he worked only in individual drills during rookie camp, not in team drills.
“I’m happy to compete wherever they put me,” Miller said. “Of course, having the last games at left (tackle), I feel a little bit more comfortable, but wherever they plug me in at, I’m ready to compete.
“I just look to learn as much as I can from these guys.”
Miller moved from right tackle to left tackle at UCLA last fall, and after a relatively slow start, he ended strong. On the season, Miller allowed just two sacks and 16 total pressures in 579 pass-block snaps by Pro Football Focus.
The 6-7, 309-pound Parker, meanwhile, echoed Miller’s sentiments.
“I’m here to work. I’m here to make the team better and get us some wins. Any way I can help the team, I’m willing to do it.”
While Gruden raved about Parker’s performance at the Senior Bowl as a major reason for Oakland zeroing in on him, the analytics saw a different performance when Parker went against better competition than he saw in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
PFF’s report: “He struggled during Senior Bowl week, both in one-on-ones and in the game where he allowed five pressures on 36 pass-block attempts.”
Not that Parker, who said he was “very surprised” to be drafted so high, saw it that way, either. Besides, now he gets to get coached up by Cable. And Gruden.
“Tom Cable is a coaching legend,” Parker said. “Jon Gruden? Growing up, the Bucs were my favorite team, so I watched him coach them for years. It’s like a childhood dream to get to play for him.”
Parker has spent his whole career on the left side – his bio says he never surrendered a sack in college, though he admitted he may have given up a couple – so switching to the right will take some adjusting.
But that’s what OTAs are for, right?
So, what does this mean for Gruden’s grand plan?
“We like (Miller) at left tackle,” Gruden said. “We think he’s a prototype left tackle. He can bend, he’s got the length that you’re looking for and he’s a sharp kid. He’s still young, though.
“And then Brandon Parker, at the beginning, we’ll start on the right side. That doesn’t mean that’s where they’re going to end up, though.”
That’s what the offseason is for, right?