The most important offseason acquisition for the Raiders’ offensive line may turn out to be Tony Sparano, the longtime NFL assistant who is now the team’s offensive line coach.
Sparano is a vocal, fiery coach who has a good track record at several stops around the league, including with the Dallas Cowboys.
If the Raiders are to be an effective offense in 2013, it will be up to Sparano to coach his unit into a group that can return to a power-blocking scheme (after last season’s failed zone-blocking scheme). If the unit can open holes for Darren McFadden and Co., and protect the quarterback – whoever emerges as No. 1 – Oakland will have a much better season in 2013.
Now Sparano is in the process of seeing what he has to work with in Oakland.
For now, Sparano has some knowns and unknowns. Jered Veldheer at left tackle is a lock, as is Stefen Wisniewski at center. But the left guard, right guard and right tackle slots are still to be worked out as the team continues its second week of offseason team activities (OTAs) and with summer camp still weeks away.
The No. 1 candidate to play right tackle is rookie Menelik Watson, a physically gifted but raw rookie. If Watson can win that job, then incumbent right tackle Khalif Barnes could move inside to right guard, where often-injured veteran Mike Brisiel is now starting. At left guard, Tony Bergstrom, the second-year player from Utah who was the team’s top pick in 2012 – in the third round – is the perceived front-runner. Reports are that Sparano was high on Bergstrom coming out of the draft and believes he could be a good NFL guard.
Bergstrom, who is 6-foot-5 and 313 pounds, played tackle in college and played just about 100 snaps in his rookie season. Though he was looked upon as a candidate to play either tackle or guard, he is now the heir apparent at left guard, where Cooper Carlisle (since released) played last season.
Bergstrom may be one of Sparano’s most important projects for development.
Early this week, however, Bergstrom was supplanted at left guard on the first-team offense by Lucas Nix, an undrafted free agent who joined the team last season out of Pittsburgh.
Head coach Dennis Allen told the media that Nix’s presence with the first team doesn’t signal that he’s fallen behind Nix. Allen says Sparano simply wants to give every lineman a chance to get enough snaps and experience so he can best evaluate the talent and decide what the best combinations are across the line.
“We’re going to mix and match a little bit and Lucas and Tony were both two young guys that we wanted to look at on the interior of our offensive line,” Allen told Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group. “Both of them have done a nice job so far. It was kind of his day to be up with the ones (first-teamers).”
Bill Williamson, ESPN.com’s AFC West blogger, also noted that GM Reggie McKenzie remains a Bergstrom backer. In February, Williamson said McKenzie told him he was confident Bergstrom would be a good fit in the new power-blocking scheme.
Though he didn’t play much his rookie season, Bergstrom has a good background. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference selection as a tackle his senior season, as well as a three-year starter for the Utes. All along, many NFL scouts had him pegged as a guard rather than tackle, however, in part because of relatively short arms.
He was impressive at the Senior Bowl, showing off good footwork and strength against top-echelon talent. Now, it’s his time to earn a spot.
McKenzie, for one, wants to see what the team has, and was disappointed he didn’t get much of a chance to contribute in 2012.
“I’m sure he would have liked to have played more (in 2012), but the staff decided to go with the veterans and let them play,” said McKenzie, when asked about Bergstrom’s rookie year after the season ended. “I’m not mad at Bergstrom, but I think he was definitely worthy of some playing some.”