To say this offseason has been a roller coaster for the Oakland Raiders is an understatement. Reggie McKenzie has been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism and mild praise from journalists and insiders around the NFL world. While McKenzie has done a great job of increasing the talent on both the offense and defense, there are still questions about who will man ‘the blindside’ for Oakland Raiders.
With all the top end tackles seemingly flying off the shelves in the first week of free agency, the Raiders are still left searching for a starting LT. The only viable option still left in free agency is former Tampa Bay Tackle Donald Penn, who has played well over his career but is on the backside of his career and has been steadily declining over the last couple years. Penn has been reported to be expecting to be highly paid like the rest of the top tackles in free agency. Unless Penn’s agent lowers his price I do not see McKenzie overpaying for a declining Tackle. Not landing Penn opens the door for youngster Menelik Watson to be the starting LT next season.
Menelik Watson was the team’s 2nd round draft pick in 2013 and is a freak 6′ 5″ 315 lbs athlete out of Florida State. Last year was only about his third full season playing football, as he grew up in England and mainly played soccer and basketball growing up. I believe it was McKenzie’s plan all along to draft Watson to eventually be groomed into the LT. With O-Line guru Tony Sparano headlining his development there is no reason Watson cannot become a top 15 tackle next season.
Watson was sidelined for most of last season with a lingering calf injury, and when he came back he struggled in his first start against the New York Giants allowing one QB sack and three QB hurries. After the game with the Giants he did not allow another QB hurry or sack in two more starts against the Texans and Chiefs, according to ProFootballFocus.com . While this is a very small sample size it’s clear to see why many officials in Oakland had high hopes when they drafted him in the 2nd round.
The Raiders could not have a better O-line coach to mentor this young and talented player. Tony Sparano has proved many times to be one of the better O-line coaches in the NFL. Sparano did not have much to work with last season in terms of talent and had to work around having a non-traditional QB for over half the season. This season I expect the O-line to look much improved and Watson could be the cornerstone for the Raiders line.
Watson’s development at LT will allow the Raiders to be more flexible in the draft and not be locked into drafting a top LT at 5. This allows the Raiders to either go and draft their franchise QB or add another talented player to the defense. McKenzie drafted Watson in the 2nd rd last season for a reason and it was ultimately to develop him into a LT. Reggie may not have thought he would be playing Watson at LT this early but it just does not fit into his plan to overpay for Penn and the Raiders would be better off drafting a skill player in the top 5 of the draft.
As it stands now Oakland has four tackles on their roster; Menelik Watson, Matt McCants, Austin Howard and Khalif Barnes. With those the only one who has experience at LT is Khalif Barnes and he just simply does not have what it takes to be a starting LT in the NFL. McCants and Howard are going to be battling in the preseason for the starting RT spot with the leader being Howard at the moment. This leaves the door wide open for Watson to seize his opportunity and become the starting LT in just his second season.
Watson may not be the guy Raider’s fans envisioned playing LT this season but he is talented and has the potential to be great. He has the chance to prove himself as the cornerstone LT the Raider’s need. The stars have aligned for Menelik Watson, if he works hard with Coach Sparano this offseason he has all the physical tools and talent to dominate the leagues pass rushers and keep the QB upright.