(Fifth in a series analyzing Raiders position groups heading into training camp)
Projected starters: Robert Gallery, Paul McQuistan, Jake Grove, Cooper Carlisle, Barry Sims.
The competition: Kevin Boothe, Ben Claxton, Cornell Green, Mario Henderson, Chris Morris, Jeremy Newberry, Chad Slaughter, Albert Toeaina, Adam Treu, Mark Wilson.
Summary: The Raiders will be better up front in 2006, because they only way they could be worse is . . . oh, never mind. There is no clever line to end that sentence, because they couldn’t possibly be worse.
It was easily the most atrocious unit play in the NFL last season, perhaps the worst in NFL history. So from that perspective, new line coach Tom Cable is in a pretty good position. Reduce the sacks from 72 into the 30s and show some signs of joining the pack in the run-happy AFC West and Cable is the NFL’s assistant coach of the year.
The player watched most closely, of course, will be Gallery. He will start, but where? He played left tackle, left guard and right tackle during minicamps and OTAs and a case could be made for any one of the three.
Galllery should play left tackle because it’s hardly fair to give him one year under the Art Shell-Irv Eatman-Jackie Slater disaster. Using last year as a guide, those three could turn Jonathan Ogden into a turnstile.
Gallery should play right tackle becuase that’s where played as a rookie (and Year 2) when he looked good enough as a pass blocker that non one was yet calling him a “bust.”
Gallery should play left guard, because his agility and physical attributes could make him a devastating cut blocker, and everyone knows the real stars of an offense that features pulls, traps and one-cut runs are the guards.
There is a fourth conclusion, one that many Raiders fans have already reached but one I consider premature.
Gallery is another Tony Mandarich. Beyond hope.
If he doesn’t settle in as at least a solid pro this year, then it’s time to jump on that bandwagon.
Until Gallery settles in at one spot, it seems the only set-in-stone positions are Grove at center and Carlisle at right guard. Everybody raved about Grove’s mean streak in college. But the problem is he simply doesn’t have the kind of brute power to be a center in the Barret Robbins mold.
Grove could, however, fare well in a Tom Nalen sort of way in the Lane Kiffin offense. Carlisle came from Denver, where they’ve been pushing the envelope of blocking ethics since Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan went there in 1995. (Gibbs, by the way, did some consulting in Atlanta when Cable was the line coach there).
Barry Sims, pushed out by Shell and Co., should start at left or right tackle. Paul McQuistan, a left guard last year, could be the right tackle if Gallery becomes a guard.
It’s been interesting to note that Boothe, the closest thing to a bright spot the Raiders had on the offensive line, has been consistenlty running as a second-team guard after starting 14 games at guard last year.
The Raiders took a shot in the dark in bringing aboard Newberry after missing the better part of the last three seasons following microfracture knee surgery. If he makes it through camp and is on the team, it’s a plus.
If Newberry were to claim a starting job, either pushing Grove to guard or starting at guard himself, it’s a miracle.
Green, also schooled on blocking techinique in Denver, has the look of a backup tackle in Oakland _ a veteran who along with Sims can work with third-round pick Henderson of Florida State.
Slaughter is a career backup.
Treu, who has been a Raider since 1997, could see his run end if the Raiders settle on Morris or Jon Condo as the long-snapper.
The bottom line: Better? Sure. But the only way the Raiders approach .500 is if Gallery and Grove become the cornerstones they were expected to be.
Coming Sunday: Tight ends