With reporting day less than two weeks away, the fourth in a series of questions and issues to be sorted out in Napa:
Can Mario Henderson establish himself as an upper eschelon left tackle?
Henderson is the prohibitive favorite to be the blindside protector for new quarterback Jason Campbell, but flash back to April 22 and it’s apparent the Raiders weren’t averse to looking for something better.
There was much rejoicing when the Raiders took Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain with the No. 8 pick in the first round. Amid the euphoria, coach Tom Cable did a strange thing when discussing the process.
Rather than lapse in to the usual “we got exactly who we wanted all along” coach-speak, Cable conceded McClain was the man only after Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams and Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung went off the board at Nos. 4 and 6 to Washington and Seattle.
Williams and Okung are regarded as plug-in players, and the Raiders wisely addressed the need for a potentially dominant front seven defender rather than opt for Rutgers’ Anthony Davis (who went to No. 11 and the 49ers) or Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga (No. 23 to the Packers).
New linemen came in rounds 3 and 4, with Hillsdale’s Jared Veldheer and Maryland’s Bruce Campbell. But it’s unlikely either is a training camp threat, and the Raiders have in fact had Veldheer take some snaps as a center and played Campbell almost exclusively at right guard.
So Henderson, who escaped any real competition in 2009 when the Raiders opted for Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of Mississippi State tackle Michael Oher, looks to be the man again, with supposed competitor Khalif Barnes also taking snaps inside and on the right side with Langston Walker.
According to some statistical services, Henderson led the NFL in sacks allowed in 2009, although only the teams themselves know through knowledge of their blocking schemes who was responsible for a sack on a given play and those stats are kept to themselves. It didn’t help that JaMarcus Russell was essentially a statue whose poor footwork had him at the incorrect depth, setting linemen up for failure.
But backup Bruce Gradkowski ended up with two MCL tears, and Charlie Frye sustained a concussion, so it’s clear quarterback wasn’t the safest place to be.
Utilized as a pawn in the Lane Kiffin-Al Davis wars, with the former coach criticizing the left tackle in public in part to motivate him and in part to tweak the boss who made the draft pick, Henderson got his chance under Cable. He performed well at the end of the 2008 season as a starter, neutralizing the likes of Mario Williams and Richard Seymour, and was told privately by Cable the left tackle job was his for the taking last year even before Barnes broke an ankle in training camp.
The hope for the Raiders is that Henderson is the same late bloomer who went from non-factor to a third-round draft pick at Florida State despite not winning a starting job until his senior year. Henderson’s play may have slipped last year in part because of the absence of left guard Robert Gallery, who made only six starts because of a broken fibula and back surgery.
Cable has done most of the pushing and prodding with Henderson , who has said he regards the coach as a “father figure.” At minicamps and organized team activities open to the media, Cable done much less with the offensive line, leaving it to position coach Jim Michalczik and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
The Raiders have been in search of an anchor at left tackle since they returned to Oakland in 1995. Davis thought he had Orlando Pace in 1997 when he traded up for the second pick in the draft, only to have the Rams move up to No. 1.
While Barry Sims served with distinction on three division champions, the Raiders tried three times to replace him through the draft (Mo Collins, Matt Stinchcomb, Gallery). Kwame Harris was short-team disaster in 2008.
Henderson goes into camp trying to prove he’s more than simply another left tackle going through the revolving door.