Programming note: NFL free agency is underway! Check out Scott Bair's Raiders free agent tracker and watch SportsNet Central every night at 6 and 10:30 p.m. for all the latest football news.
Rodger Saffold was technically never a Raider. The free agent offensive lineman failed a team-administered physical, had a five-year, $42.5 million contract pulled off the table and agreed to a new deal with his old team, the St. Louis Rams.
All that on a Wednesday night.
Let’s ignore for a second all the sordid details that brought us here and focus on what happens next. Despite some speculation to the contrary, the versatile lineman was told he would play left tackle.
The Raiders are now searching for a new plan, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Incumbent Jared Veldheer has already inked a deal in Arizona. Other top left tackles signed contracts on Tuesday. Anthony Collins was the last top-tier talent available, and he signed with Tampa Bay early Thursday morning.
That leaves the Raiders with a huge hole at a crucial spot. How can they fill it? The Raiders have options in the draft, in house, and on the open market. Let’s take a closer look at each one:
ON THE ROSTER
Menelik Watson: The Raiders believe last year’s second-round pick can develop into something special. That assumes, of course, that he can stay healthy. And play left tackle. He hasn’t done much of either thus far.
Watson was sidelined most of his rookie season with a knee strain and a pair of calf strains. Watson has only played left tackle once in his athletic career, during the 2013 preseason finale at Seattle. Watson’s size (6-foot-5, 315 pounds), athleticism and footwork make him a candidate to grow into a starting role at left tackle, but he’s so inexperienced – just one year Division I college football experience, just two years playing football before turning pro – that it’s hard to count on Watson to play well for 16 games.
Khalif Barnes: Barnes could be a backup plan on the left side. He was forced to play the position for 11 games last year when Veldheer was hurt. He hadn’t played left tackle since 2008, but was decent as a replacement. He isn’t a long-term solution at that spot, and the Raiders heavily considered playing him at guard in 2014.
Matt McCants: The second-year pro fared well filling in at right tackle last season, but played his college ball on the left side. It's risky to assume he can excel on the blind side right away.
ON THE MARKET
Donald Penn: The 30-year old was cut in favor of Collins due to an $8 million cap hit and just $666,000 in dead money. Penn has started every game since 2008 and has played well at the left tackle spot. In terms of durability and an ability to function well specifically at left tackle, Penn is probably an upgrade over Saffold and should come cheaper. Penn allowed 12 sacks last year – hence Tampa’s desire to upgrade – but Pro Football Focus still grades him high. Penn is the best veteran option available in a picked over free agent class.
IN THE DRAFT
Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), Greg Robinson (Auburn), Taylor Lewan (Michigan): Draft scouts are high on all three of these first-round talents, and at least one should be available when the Raiders select at No. 5 overall. Robinson and Matthews are expected to be top-tier left tackles and should be able to play in the NFL right away. Lewan might be the nastiest of all three. One problem: that would forced the Raiders to wait on drafting an explosive defender, skill player or quarterback to upgrade a vacancy they never expected to have.