Raiders Getting Creative with Offensive Line

Reports that Austin Howard will play guard mean that the door will be open for Menelik Watson to play right tackle

With the signing of veteran free-agent offensive tackles Donald Penn and Austin Howard, it appeared Menelik Watson didn’t have a certain spot in the 2014 Raiders lineup.

Howard, who played right tackle for the Jets, and Penn, who played on the left side for the Bucs, were considered the logical bookends for the offensive line this coming season, with Watson – the team’s No. 2 pick in 2013 – likely a competitor for a backup tackle spot or guard position.

But a story by Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle Monday revealed that early-line thinking was backward. Tafur reports the Raiders are going to move Howard to guard and open the door to Watson to earn the job at right tackle.

General manager Reggie McKenzie told reporters Monday at the NFL Owners Meetings in Florida that he has high hopes for Watson and cornerback D.J. Hayden, the team’s No. 1 pick last year. The Raiders will give them every opportunity to win starting jobs and make impacts in 2014.

“No. 1, we would like for them to be healthy this season and then show their skills,” McKenzie said, according to Tafur. “They’ll get coached up during the offseason and hopefully they’ll be healthy and ready to go … and then play.”

The signings of Penn, Howard and veteran guard-center Kevin Boothe, formerly of the Giants, gives the Raiders multiple options, but the idea to move Howard to guard is especially intriguing. First, it would take advantage of Howard’s strength as a run blocker and second, it would allow Watson to live up to his second-round potential.

The offensive line could be Penn at left tackle, Kevin Boothe or Khalif Barnes at left guard, Stefen Wisniewski at center, Howard at right guard and Watson at right tackle.

While playing for the Jets the past two seasons, Howard became a much more polished performer at right tackle.

In 2012, he struggled as a pass blocker but was outstanding as a run blocker. In 2013, he improved markedly in pass protection while his run-blocking production faltered a bit. According to Pro Football Focus, Howard was the ninth-best run-blocking right tackle in the NFL in 2012.

At 6-foot-7 and 333 pounds, Howard is bigger than most guards. But the 49ers showed that moving a big, strong tackle type to guard can pay big dividends when they moved Alex Boone (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) into the right-guard spot two seasons ago. Boone has become a terrific performer.

And, as Tafur noted, Howard has played guard in the past, with the Eagles and Ravens.

“This could all change at training camp, according to team sources, but that’s the plan right now,” wrote Tafur. “McKenzie has added a lot of versatile offensive linemen and wants tough competition with the ability to move parts around.”

With the Raiders also having guards Tony Bergstrom and Mike Brisiel and tackle Matt McCants on the roster – with more additions possible in the draft -- it sounds as if offensive line coach Tony Sparano will be able to do a lot of experimenting in training camp to find the best combination.

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