Programming note: Raiders Insider Scott Bair is in Orlando, Florida for the NFL owners meetings; check back for all his coverage and watch SportsNet Central every night at 6 and 10:30 p.m. for all the day’s football news
ORLANDO, Fla. – Unlike last season, the Raiders have options and real depth along the offensive line. They acquired size and experience in free agency, even with the catch and release of Rodger Saffold.
Head coach Dennis Allen emphasized that he’d play the best five players available, with few set positions heading into offseason work.
We know that Donald Penn will play left tackle. Stefen Wisniewski is your center. Outside of that, it’ll be a slugfest among qualified candidates.
“We’ll see who’s in the group of five,” Allen said Tuesday in an hour-long sit-down at the NFL owners meetings. “I’m not going to make that determination yet. I’m going to let them go out and compete. May the best man win.”
The Raiders will take advantage of their newfound versatility and experiment with right tackle Austin Howard at right guard, something the Raiders suggested during his free-agent visit. That paves the way for second-year pro Menelik Watson to get involved and start at right tackle.
If the oft-injured second-round selection can stay healthy and make a strong impact -- coaches believe the kid has real potential -- the Raiders can mix and match to their heart’s desire. If Watson can’t, they’ll have to change plans. Howard could play right tackle as he had the last two seasons with the New York Jets and Kevin Boothe, Mike Brisiel and Khalif Barnes can battle it out for guard spots. Tony Bergstrom is also in the mix, but Allen will try him as a reserve center as well.
Watson is vital for experimentation. The Raiders have high hopes for an athletic brute with limited football experience. The Englishman excelled in one season at Florida State, but he remains an unknown NFL commodity because he hasn’t played or practiced much in silver and black.
While optimism reigns, Allen admitted he really doesn’t know what he’s got in Watson.
“I wish I could,” Allen said. “I can tell you what I think his potential is. I can tell you what we saw when we watched the college tape. But what can he be in the NFL? I don’t know the answer to that. He knows it. We all know it. It’s a critical offseason for him. He needs to be able to stay healthy and be here for everything we do. He needs to compete and win the job.”
Watson needs to play more than he did last season. He missed most of training camp with a calf strain, then a chunk of the regular season with a knee sprain. By then, he was light years behind. That was before Watson went down again with a different calf issue.
“Menelik wanted to play and he was frustrated that he wasn’t able to stay healthy,” Allen said. “I think we all were. I think that’s something that, as we go through this offseason, that he’s got to learn how to take care of himself. That’s part of a pro’s responsibility. That’s part of the injury prevention process.”
Watson was active for just five games and played 177 snaps. The Raiders are hoping for much more in 2014. Production from him could set the rest of these bold plans in motion and create a strong starting five galvanized by competition.
“The good news is that we have flexibility if we have the injury issues that we had last year,” Allen said. “We can slide guys around if we have to. Hopefully we stay healthy and can be really solid up front.”