Menelik Watson and Austin Howard will battle for the starting right tackle job again, but not until they make returns from injury.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio told reporters Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton,, Fla., that Watson has a chance to be ready when the team’s offseason program starts April 18, but Howard will miss at least the beginning.
Watson ruptured his Achilles last preseason and spent the year on injured reserve. Howard played well while starting the first 13 games at right tackle, but a knee injury led to him finishing the season on IR as well.
“Menelik has a chance to be there,” Del Rio said of the offseason program. “Austin’s just a little bit behind. They both will return.”
Watson, a native of England who was a second-round pick in 2013 after playing just two seasons of football, was in line to be the Raiders’ starter before last season’s injury. Howard, entering the third year of five-year, $30 million contract, was Oakland’s right guard in 2014 and pegged to be a backup before Watson’s injury last year.
“They’re both guys who showed they could play at a high level last year,” Del Rio said. “Menelik was probably ahead at the point he was injured, Austin stepped in and really had a good year for us.
The rest of the line is locked in thanks to the return of left tackle Donald Penn, who signed a two-year deal last week.
Kelechi Osemele, one of the prizes of free agency, is expected to play left guard after signing a five-year deal that makes him the league’s highest paid interior offensive lineman. Del Rio and offensive line coach Mike Tice have declined to publicly announce that yet until they can discuss with the players when the offseason program begins, but Gabe Jackson is expected to move over to right guard. Rodney Hudson also gives them one of the better centers in the league.
Having a strong offensive line is always important, but particularly so in the AFC West. Despite Tuesday’s news that Kansas City Chiefs’ standout Justin Houston could miss 6-12 months following surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament, the division possesses some of the league’s best pass rushers.
The Chiefs still have Tamba Hali, the Raiders have Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin and it all starts with the Denver Broncos’ duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
“You better have good lineman and good design because there’s a lot of great pass rushers in this division,” Del Rio said. “It starts with the Super Bowl MVP. Von’s special. A special guy off the edge. I think Khalil has a chance to be that. I think that’s part of surviving in our division, you better get ready to block those guys.”