The Oakland Raiders have put an emphasis on improving their offensive line through free agency. After losing left tackle Jared Veldheer to the Arizona Cardinals, the Raiders have signed offensive linemen Austin Howard, Kevin Boothe and Donald Penn.
The Raiders also voided the deal for Rodger Saffold, a player some had penciled in at guard even though the monetary commitment indicated otherwise.
With the signing of tackles Penn and Howard, the plan for last year’s second-round pick Menelik Watson is unclear. Watson will have to win a job outright by beating out players the Raiders are paying to be starters.
Watson’s performance will also be something used to evaluate Reggie McKenzie’s job performance. For a general manager who wants to build through the draft, having a second-round pick without a clear path to a starting job headed into his second year is a bad sign.
Donald Penn will get the first crack at playing LT for Raiders but nothing's set in stone. Gives Oakland flexibility with the 5th pick, too.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 18, 2014
It’s true that much of Watson’s rookie season was lost due to injury. Watson missed most of training camp and played in just five games, with a single start at right tackle in a loss against the New York Giants.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that all the missed time hurt Watson’s development. He was a raw prospect having played football for only a few years before the Raiders drafted him.
Watson played 57 snaps in a relief role against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9. Matt McCants had played well in place of right tackle Tony Pashos and started ahead of Watson before getting hurt.
In his first action of the season, Watson’s performance was a mixed bag. He had a few nice blocks but also made a few major errors. The Raiders had no choice but to start Watson against the Giants in Week 10 because both McCants and Pashos were out.
After his performance against New York, Watson became the team’s sixth offensive lineman in heavy sets. He essentially became a blocking tight end with a combined 22 snaps in pass protection for the rest of the season according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Watson vs. Philadelphia
By the time Watson came into the game, the Eagles already had a sizable lead. Watson did look serviceable in the run game, but the Eagles were using soft fronts. Far more important was how he held up in pass protection.
On one of Watson’s first plays, he pushed the pass-rusher past quarterback Terrelle Pryor. By using his length and strength, Watson made the pass-rusher lose balance and fall. Pryor was able to step up in the pocket and find a running back for a few yards to turn a 2nd-and-7 into a more manageable 3rd-and-3.
Just a few plays later, Watson struggled to identify his assignment. On a 3rd-and-2, the pass-rusher blew right past him. If Pryor hadn’t been throwing a quick hitter to his left, the blitzing linebacker would’ve crushed him.
Perhaps there was a bad protection call on the second play, but it has the characteristics of a blown assignment.
Watson’s first action was inconsistent, but that’s what most people might expect from a raw rookie with very little practice time under his belt. The performance was encouraging enough that the Raiders were willing to give Watson more opportunities.
Watson vs. Giants
Watson had a chance to improve upon his first action in a start against the Giants, but he looked even worse. It ended up being his last significant chunk of playing time at offensive tackle in 2013.
Defensive end Justin Tuck, who recently signed with the Raiders, gave Watson the most trouble. Tuck had his way with Watson in the passing game and really made it impossible for Pryor to get anything going on a bum knee.
Tuck utilized inside and outside pass-rush moves to put pressure on Pryor. Watson hasn’t learned how to use his hands to ride pass-rushers around the edge as he did against Philadelphia. Tuck was also able to go inside on Watson because he started setting up too far to the outside.
Watson was decent in the run game, with a few exceptions. On one play, he was able to clear a big running lane for Rashad Jennings. Watson is competitive in the running game and the Raiders often utilized his athleticism by moving him around.
Just as Watson had whiffed on a block against Philadelphia, he did something similar against the Giants.
Tuck slipped so quickly past Watson that he nearly ran into Jennings. Watson looked clueless about where to go or what to do after Tuck left him in the dust. Watson was lucky that Jennings still turned it into a positive play despite his poor block.
Watson also added two penalties in the game (one was declined). It was a terrible performance from the rookie after having a chance to play for a first time the week before.
Watson had a chance to earn more playing time with a decent performance, but the Raiders went back to the veteran Pashos as soon as they could, even though they had nothing to lose by playing Watson.
Watson played in just one preseason game before the Raiders thrust him into action three months later. As a raw rookie, Watson looked like a player who hadn’t had the time at the NFL level to refine his technique and expand his knowledge of the game.
Given his performance in 2013, the Raiders can’t count on anything from Watson in 2014. If Watson improves his technique and pushes for a starting job, that will be like a bonus.
Watson staying healthy so he can work with offensive line coach Tony Sparano to improve will be vital if he’s going to mount any challenge to Penn at left tackle. The Raiders knew Watson was a bit of a project when they drafted him, so they will be patient with him to some extent.
It’s clear why the Raiders were neither comfortable with Watson as a starter at right or left tackle in 2014 after watching him play in 2013. Watson has a lot of work to do before he’s even an average NFL tackle.
He has all the tools to be successful, but he has a lot of work to do before he turns into a quality player. The Raiders will hold out hope that it’s just a matter of staying healthy and refining his ugly technique.