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NFL Draft

2 Factors Led To Las Vegas Raiders’ OL Turnaround

  • The Draft Network
  • July 23, 2020
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Offensive line play isn’t sexy. Sure, Quenton Nelson highlights are fun, and everyone knows that Dallas Cowboys offensive line in 2016 with Tyron Smith and Zack Martin and Travis Frederick and Ronald Leary and Doug Free and La’el Collins was nuts—but the every day, yeoman’s work of an offensive lineman? It’s underappreciated.

And that’s why we’re often late to recognize the top offensive lines in the NFL. Yes, the Cowboys still have their stars, and were accordingly good again. The Eagles, who have poured tons of money into the offensive line, were good again. The Steelers and the Patriots and the Saints, all who couldn’t have a bad offensive line if they tried, were good again.

But none were better than the Las Vegas Raiders in 2019. 

Of course, there’s room for debate. But the most surprising offensive line of the 2019 season, among the top tier, certainly belonged to the Raiders, who pieced together an underwhelming 2018 rookie, a big-ticket free agent, a bargain-bin free agent, and their existing vets to field a 7-, even 8-deep lineup on the offensive line that survived injury to finish as one of the top squads in the NFL. 

How did they get it done? Two huge moves stand out.

Trent Brown signing and handling

Obviously, when you look at the Raiders’ offensive line renaissance over the last two seasons, you have to highlight Brown. At only 25 years old, Brown was acquired during the 2019 free agency period and became the highest-paid tackle in the NFL at the time with a four-year, $66M deal. Brown was coming off of a Pro Bowl season in his lone year with the Patriots, who had acquired him via trade with the San Francisco 49ers to fill in the gap at left tackle created by Nate Solder’s departure. 

There was doubt that Brown would live up to the billing. In San Francisco, he was a solid but unspectacular option at right tackle, and the spike in performance he enjoyed under legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia did not seem repeatable in Oakland with beleaguered ex-Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable (more on him later.) PFF rated the signing among the most overrated in the 2019 NFL free agency cycle, saying “there’s not much to suggest Brown will ever be a top-10 tackle in the league.”

But Brown was arguably a top-10 tackle in the NFL last season, depending on who you ask. ESPN’s list, compiled from the opinions of various league execs, coaches, scouts, and players, had him ninth. Brandon Thorn, OL expert for Establish the Run, had him as the sixth-best right tackle in the NFL. And that’s important: Brown’s playing right tackle.

When the Raiders made him the highest-paid tackle in the NFL, many assumed that they would then plug him in on the left side, where he had excelled in New England. 2018 first-round rookie Kolton Miller was a left tackle at UCLA and played the spot as a rookie, but with poor performance there, moving him to right seemed like a fair sacrifice. But the Raiders saw it differently, choosing instead to put Brown on the right side, where he had started his career with the Niners.

Who knows what would have happened had the Raiders put Brown on the left and Miller on the right—perhaps Miller would have taken well to the right side and Brown would have played even better on the left. But the current arrangement inarguably works. The continuity ended up being critical for Miller, who grew nicely through the 2019 season—he’s yet imperfect, but is nothing like the liability he was in 2018. The Raiders’ patience there is being rewarded, and Brown’s freakish size/grace combo still works wonders on the right side. Their young and talented tackles are nicely set for the next three seasons, at least.

Their risks paid off

There’s no avoiding the reasons why such a talented, mauling guard as Richie Incognito was available for the Raiders to sign to a $1M deal in 2019. Incognito had just recently been arrested in Arizona for disorderly conduct; he was suspended by the Dolphins in 2013 for conduct detrimental to the team following his verbal harassment and threatening of fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, which included racial slurs; he was again accused of using racial slurs by Jaguars EDGE Yannick Ngakoue in the 2017 season with the Buffalo Bills, after which he retired citing stress-related health issues and a contract dispute.

Incognito has always been a good ball-player, but has also been a troubled man struggling with his own health, and an unpleasant teammate at multiple stops in his career. Adding a veteran like this to the locker room could have been volatile for team continuity, as well as dangerous for Incognito’s health long-term. Of course, the Raiders were angling for moves such as this, as reflected in Incognito’s fellow 2019 additions, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and wide receiver Antonio Brown, both of whom had either historical or recent signs of locker room discontent and off-field distractions.

You can also put offensive line coach Cable under that umbrella. Cable, who was the Raiders’ offensive line coach from 2007-2008 and head coach from 2008-2010, was accused of punching an assistant coach during his time with the Raiders. Civil suits against Cable from ex-wives and girlfriends claiming physical abuse were also made public during the 2009 season, which owner Al Davis cited as the reason why Cable was fired in 2010.

Cable went to Seattle following his firing to coach the offensive line there for several years, where he routinely came under fire for his long-forsaken projects that never seemed to fully pan out as consistent starters on an embattled offensive line. His front regularly ranked among the worst in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, while quarterback Russell Wilson rode the top of the sack charts every year. His early draft picks at the position—James Carpenter, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi, Ethan Pocic—never really panned out, and his late-round experiments—J.R. Sweezy, George Fant, Joey Hunt—didn’t develop quite enough to cover the lost ground. 

So when Cable was brought back to Oakland in 2018, following his firing from the Seattle coaching staff, it came under heavy criticism. But whatever magic Cable has as a developer of talent that has kept him afloat in the league, it was certainly with him during his return trip to the Black Hole. In two years under Cable, both Miller and veteran guard Gabe Jackson have stepped up their game, while center Rodney Hudson has remained dominant, and Incognito and Brown have been seamlessly integrated. Even when young players had to step in for injured starters, they held their own—like when UCLA OT Andre James stepped in to play center when Hudson went down. That wasn’t happening in Seattle.

Cable and Incognito were bets that a lot of teams would have been unwilling to make. And the biggest bet in terms of visibility and star power—the Antonio Brown acquisition—really missed. But there’s no elite Raiders offensive line without Cable and Incognito, and the risk that was assumed with bringing them on. Now Incognito is extended, and the Raiders are returning all five starters under the same coach in a year when continuity on the offensive line will be a prized commodity. They’re the clubhouse favorite to be the best unit in 2020 once again.

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