Fourth in a series evaluating the Raiders position by position as it begins it begins to prepare for the 2009 season.
Position group review: Offensive line
Starters: LT Mario Henderson, LG Robert Gallery, C Jake Grove, RG Cooper Carlisle, RT Cornell Green. Reserves: T Kwame Harris, C-G Chris Morris, C John Wade, T Paul McQuistan, T Mark Wilson, T James Marten. Unrestricted free agents: Grove, Carlisle.
The direction of this unit will become more clear once it is learned whether Tom Cable returns as either head coach, offensive coordinator or offensive line coach.
He won’t have the triplicate role of being in charge, calling the plays and handling his beloved grunts, but if Cable is still around, the Raiders will remain a zone blocking team, with an emphasis on beating opponents to the punch rather than overpowering them.
Cable believes in the scheme very deeply, and it was at its glorious best in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, when Michael Bush rushed for 129 yards and the Raiders left Bucs linemen strewn all over their own field.
If Cable doesn’t get the head coaching gig and takes another job, the Raiders could return to a man-blocking scheme or some kind of hybrid, as Denver has done in recent years.
As was the case in 2008, the Raiders’ best lineman was a guard, only this time it was Gallery, who had only three penalties all year and who would be getting some run as an upper tier player at his position if Oakland had a winning record.
Gallery has already reworked his contract once, usually an indication a player isn’t going anywhere, and with cap number approaching $9 million, could be asked again.
The rest of the line wasn’t nearly as consistent. Carlisle, the most steady player in 2008, found himself manhandled on occasion against the more physical tackles and is an unrestricted free agent.
Grove’s contract automatically voided on playing time incentives. The Raiders’ Ed Block Courage Award winner for his recovery from micro-fracture surgery, Grove is a staunch Cable supporter and his plans could hinge on whether the coach returns in some capacity.
Originally signed to be a veteran backup, Green has been a two-year starter on the right side and carries a $1.8 million salary into next season. Ideally, he’ll be a backup and a mentor to Henderson and other young linemen.
During the draft or free agency, the Raiders need a frontline tackle _ maybe two. The scheme they select will determine whether they seek a bruiser or someone more lean and athletic.
One of the bright spots over the past three games was Henderson. A public whipping post for former coach Lane Kiffin, and ridden hard by Cable in private, Henderson’s passion and desire were openly questioned.
He subbed for Harris against Buffalo and Kansas City, with Harris getting his job back when healthy. He subbed for him again because of injury later in the year, with Cable going back to Harris end emphatically stating he was the Raiders’ left tackle.
Finally, as Harris continued to struggle, Henderson got the job over the final three games, didn’t make a single penalty, and proved worthy of at least entering camp as a favorite to start.
Harris, on the other hand, is due $2 million in salary plus a $6 million roster bonus after earning $605,000 with a $1.5 bonus in 2008. Harris will never see the second year, certainly not with those numbers.
Cable’s loyalty _ he was convinced Harris would be a standout left tackle _ got the better of him in this case. He lobbied for Harris, who struggled in pass protection for the 49ers, and it stands out as his worst mistake in judgment since joining the Raiders.
The Raiders have right of first refusal on Morris, a smallish, mobile guard/center who won’t be around if the blocking scheme changes radically.
The Raiders still have Wade under contract for another year at $1.5 million should they lose Grove.
Marten, a Cowboys practice pick, was signed off their practice squad but was never active for a game as he adjusted to the system. Although Cable said he liked Marten’s progress, they never considered activating him even though Harris was struggling, Henderson wasn’t a favorite of the coaches and Green’s health was a week-to-week proposition.
McQuistan, who spent the season on injured reserve following knee surgery, adapted slowly to zone blocking and was ticketed for a reserve role before being injured. Wilson, also on I.R., will be fighting for a roster spot.