The 2016 Raiders season could have been much different if general manager Reggie McKenzie had not re-signed left offensive tackle Donald Penn.
At this time last year, Penn was an impending free agent, and Raiders watchers were wondering if McKenzie would invest in a new deal to keep Penn. Some believed the Raiders would allow Penn, now 33, to leave and fill the position from in-house (Menelik Watson or Austin Howard) or through free agency.
Instead, McKenzie gave Penn a new two-year deal worth nearly $12 million. The move proved to be one of McKenzie’s best.
Penn had a Pro Bowl season in 2016 and was the anchor of one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. The group of Penn, new left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Howard was terrific. The blockers up front allowed just 18 sacks, the best total in the league.
Osemele was the big free-agent addition for 2016, but it was the decision to keep Penn that set the stage for Osemele to stay at guard (rather than left tackle) and give the Raiders a physical, dominating line.
Penn, in fact, is one of five Raiders who recently was selected to the list of top 101 NFL players by the analytic website Pro Football Focus (along with Hudson, quarterback Derek Carr, Osemele and defensive end/linebacker Khalil Mack).
As Pro Football Focus noted, Penn allowed just one sack all season. Unfortunately, it was the sack of Carr on Dec. 24 that ended Carr’s year.
“Penn was a dominant run blocker all season, destroying people that got in his way,” wrote PFF. And, Penn not only allowed just one sack in 2016, but only three other hits on Carr.
Penn had one previous Pro Bowl season, in 2010 for Tampa Bay. But the Bucs gave up on him after seven seasons, and McKenzie signed him to a two-year free-agent deal in 2014. In three seasons in Oakland, he’s played every regular-season game. The one game he missed, because of a knee injury, was this year’s playoff loss to Houston.
But Penn, 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, is expected to be 100 percent healthy for the coming season.