Our fourth edition of the Raiders 2021 Positional Review series covers a unit that was heavily scrutinized throughout the season: the offensive line. The Las Vegas offensive line went through a drastic change during last year’s offseason that saw the team jettison several familiar starters and replace them with new faces. How did this new-look offensive line fare? Let’s take look.
Tackles: Jackson Barton, Kolton Miller, Brandon Parker, Kamaal Seymour
Guards: Jermaine Eluemunor, Denzelle Good, Richie Incognito, Alex Leatherwood, Jordan Simmons, John Simpson
Centers: Andre James, Nick Martin
This past offseason, the Raiders decided to start anew along the offensive line and get much younger at nearly every position. With normal stalwarts finding new homes, that made left tackle Kolton Miller one of the most experienced blockers in Las Vegas. The team looked towards Miller to step up and become a veteran leader among the younger players, and he most certainly did not disappoint.
The 15th overall selection out of UCLA in the 2018 NFL Draft turned in one of his best professional seasons to date. Miller played every offensive snap in 2021 for the Raiders and only surrendered four sacks. While the offensive line as a whole may have been up and down throughout the season, Miller was the consistent blindside protector the team was hoping he would be. Miller is that building block that is needed to lay on further foundation in the future as the Raiders continue to add to their offensive line.
“It’s huge for our guys. Asking Alex Leatherwood to go from right tackle… to go to right guard and Brandon Parker stepping up, along with John Simpson. We see a firmer pocket presence and we’re just getting it all in,” Miller said in the postgame press conference following a Week 7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I hope we can keep building off of this because we’ve made some huge strides. I’m really proud of our guys.”
On the opposite side of Miller sits right tackle Brandon Parker. Initially entering the season as the team’s sixth offensive lineman, he took over full time starting duties Week 5 vs. the Chicago Bears after it was decided the struggling line needed a shake up. Parker was a third-round selection in 2018 in the same draft class as Kolton Miller. But Parker has never quite lived up to his draft status. 2021, however, would see somewhat of a turnaround for Parker.
Playing more consistently than he had for his entire career up to that point, Parker showed marked improvement and that he can at least be an above average starter. Though he did surrender eight sacks, Parker got better down the stretch.
When Parker took over starting duties in October, he took over for rookie Alex Leatherwood, who was shifted to right guard. The Raiders’ first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was initially seen as the team’s starter at right tackle, but Leatherwood struggled mightily to adjust to the speed of the pro game.
By midseason, it was decided to kick Leatherwood to the inside to help ease his transition from college to the NFL. The former Alabama blocker eventually settled into his new role and his played markedly improved. There were certainly growing pains as Leatherwood gave up eight sacks and committed fourteen penalties, but he showed enough improvement down the stretch that the Raiders see him as a true building block for the future.
While Leatherwood was moved to right guard because he was struggling at right tackle, another reason he was moved was due to injuries along the interior of the line.
Veteran guards Richie Incognito and Denzelle Good were supposed to be the veteran duo to help stabilize both guard spots. Injuries, however, would ruin that plan almost from the get-go. Incognito would not appear during the regular season as he was put on injured reserve with a calf injury. Denzelle Good tore his ACL in a Week 1 victory over the Baltimore Ravens that would end his season. The depth of Las Vegas was challenged early.
Waiting in the wings was offensive guard John Simpson. The fourth-round pick in 2020 had some shaky moments as a rookie and it was decided Simpson still needed a bit more seasoning behind the two veterans in front of him. With both Incognito and Good missing the season early on, Simpson stepped up into a starting spot on the left side and stayed there all season.
While Simpson was up and down for all of 2021, he gained valuable experience that could prove to be immeasurable for 2022. Though he committed ten penalties during the season, he only allowed three total sacks and became an important piece of the offensive line for the Raiders. Like many of his peers along the offensive line, he showed steady improvement down the stretch and should only continue to get better.
The man in the middle for the Raiders was center Andre James. James beat out veteran Nick Martin and went on to start every game for Las Vegas. He seemed to build chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr with each passing week, even as the line around him was shuffled and reshuffled,
James remained a constant in the center of the Raiders’ offensive line. Signing a three-year, $12 million extension back in March of 2021, James earned every penny the following season, allowing only two sacks all year and becoming one of the most consistent players for Las Vegas.
During the Raiders’ end-of-season press conference, James was asked about the improvement of the offensive line down the stretch.
“Towards the last end of this stretch of this season, I feel like we grew a lot, first of all. At the beginning of the season, we were all kind of new to each other, didn’t play much ball. so just being able to communicate, understanding how we fitted on some of our combinations, it was all still kind of new to us.”
“Later in the season, we started to gel a lot, started to understand how we needed to communicate, understand what we needed from one another, which is huge as an offensive line.”
Depth proved to be an issue, but the Raiders had just enough to avoid complete disaster. Veteran center Nick Martin was signed to a one-year deal and was expected to provide veteran insurance but ended up only playing seven snaps all season long. Veteran guard Jermaine Eluemunor was signed in early September with Richie Incognito still dealing with an injury and would go on to start three games for the Raiders while providing key depth for the rest of the way. Outside of Miller, Leatherwood, and Parker, no other tackle on the roster saw significant action at tackle.
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