Fifth in a series of posts analyzing Raiders position groups, with players reporting to training camp Tuesday:
Projected starters: LT Mario Henderson, LG Robert Gallery, C Samson Satele, RG Cooper Carlisle, RT Khalif Barnes. Backups: C John Wade, C-G Chris Morris, G Jonathan Compas, G Marcus Johnson, G-T Paul McQuistan, T James Marten, T Cornell Green, T Erik Pears, T Mark Wilson.
When Tom Cable finally pulled the plug on the Kwame Harris experiment _ his biggest personnel mistake since joining the Raiders _ the much-maligned Henderson got his chance and got the better of Richard Seymour, Mario Williams and Gaines Adams in the last three games, making him the front-runner to protect the blind side of JaMarcus Russell. As time passes, Gallery’s contract doesn’t look all that ridiculous. He’s making what an elite guard makes. The only thing between Gallery and Pro Bowl recognition is a winning season. Satele was a two-year starter in Miami who had trouble moving some of the elite interior linemen of the AFC East but played with a shoulder injury which has since been surgically repaired. Carlisle’s play slipped in 2008 after a strong 2007, but the Raiders thought enough of him to re-sign him when he hit free agency. Green was never expected to be a starting right tackle, but there he is. Ideally, either Henderson, Barnes or Pears seizes the position. Pears was a starter in Denver in 2007 with experience in the zone blocking system. Morris is a system fit who can play both guard and center. Johnson was a former Minnesota second-round draft pick who Cable envisions as a guard rather than a tackle, a switch which worked for Gallery. McQuistan, out with a knee injury last year, is a mauler whose work in space makes him suspect for the system. Marten is big and agile, but never got a sniff after being claimed off Dallas’ practice squad last year even though tackles were struggling. Compas could be a practice squad candidate. Wilson keeps hanging around, and in the zone blocking system, sometimes obscure linemen emerge.
The key battle: Henderson vs. Barnes. Winner anchored at left tackle. Runner-up moves to the right.
What I think: Henderson endured public potshots from Lane Kiffin last year, but never really had the confidence of Cable, either, who kept playing Harris even though he was mostly a disaster. The third-year tackle does have the support of Al Davis, who duly noted in a press conference how Henderson made Seymour, Williams and Adams disappear. It will be a major surprise if he doesn’t start the season at left tackle, and he likely won’t get as much help as he has in the past. It’s time to put Henderson on the island. Barnes had a season in Jacksonville which was similar to Harris’ season with the Raiders, full of false starts and sacks allowed. He’s on a one-year contract in hopes of boosting his value, and needs to be sold on the merits of changing positions and then brought up to speed. If the Raiders are again weak at tackle, it puts Russell at risk in terms of both injury and would reduce his chances to be an effective quarterback even if he remains upright. One thing in the line’s favor _ if Lorenzo Neal still has all his skill as a blocking fullback, everyone just got a little better.
What could go wrong: There is very little in the way of proven depth. Injury or ineffectiveness puts Green back on the field, and there are no guards on the roster who approach the experience or cut-blocking skill of Gallery or Carlisle.