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Raiders close to their starting front five

The Oakland Raiders came into the 2011 season facing a dilemma along their offensive line. Three of the five starters who began the season in 2010 were not re-signed: left guard Robert Gallery moved on to the Seattle Seahawks, right tackle Langston Walker was on the verge of retirement, and left tackle Mario Henderson failed a physical when the team offered him a contract. Right now, it appears the Raiders are set at more positions than they are not, but there remain some questions – and one in particular.

When Head Coach Hue Jackson was asked in a phone conference Sunday about the starting offensive line, he replied, “We’re getting very close to [having our five starters]. Obviously, we got four preseason games but, as we continue to get people back – hopefully we’ll get a couple more guys back this week – we’ll be closer to making sure that we put those [right] five guys out there.”

The main player the Raiders are expecting to get back this week is right tackle Stephon Heyer. The Raiders have tried several bodies at right tackle. In preseason week one, they started Khalif Barnes at the position but Stephon Heyer looked really good when he got his opportunity with the first team offense and Barnes false-started three times on one drive. In week two, rookie Joseph Barksdale got a ton of reps at the position with Khalif Barnes filling in and Heyer out with injury.

Thus far, Heyer has the inside track on the position as long as he can some back from his tricep injury and continue to be the most effective in that spot. While Barnes started for four years at the left tackle position with his former team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Heyer has an advantage over him by being a long-term starter on the right side for his former team, the Washington Redskins. Barksdale appears to be the long shot, as he has a lot of technique to work on to be effective.

Barksdale proved against the 49ers that he has a long way to go and is not starting material. Veteran defensive tackle, Richard Seymour, said earlier in training camp that the biggest problem for rookie offensive linemen is that “they don’t know what they don’t know.” Several times I witnessed Barksdale missing his assignments. It was not a lack of effort, simply a lack of knowledge, and it was clear that he needs more work.

The player to the inside of Barksdale in the second half, Bruce Campbell, also left much to be desired. Understandably, however, with last week being his first week of practice and his first preseason game. Not to put too much pressure on the young man, but with the power he has and the muscle on top of muscle, you’d expect to see him mowing some people over and producing consistent pancake blocks. On Saturday night, he failed to produce a single block of that magnitude.

That said, the right guard position most likely is Cooper Carlisle’s to lose. Barring injury or an unexpected retirement, he should be the day one starter yet again. Considered mostly a zone blocking specialist coming into this season, Carlisle has easily adapted to the newly implemented power blocking scheme the Raiders are moving to in the future.

Samson Satele is virtually a lock to start at center after he uprooted rookie Stefen Wisniewski nearly the same day he signed his new one-year contract. Satele had a nice finish to the 2010 season with six solid games to end the year. That combined with the fact that he knows the offense and is an experienced NFL signal caller puts him in the right position to start the season.

At left guard, Robert Gallery was considered by those close to the team to be Pro Bowl caliber when he was healthy. But in 2009, he missed the final nine games after having back surgery. In 2010, he missed the first four games after having surgery to remove his appendix. His substitute in 2010 was Daniel Loper – who will likely start this year in the same position. Loper did an admirable job filling in for Gallery by virtually going unnoticed. That seems as though it would be a bad thing, but not for an offensive lineman. Normally if you notice an offensive lineman it is because he is doing something wrong like false starting, holding, or whiffing on a block.

Loper missed practice on Monday, prompting some to believe he may have been injured in the 49ers game. But Coach Jackson clarified that Loper had just had a new baby born to his family. Jackson also said that Walter McFadden was out for the same reason so congratulations to both of them.

Unless Sethen Wisniewski makes serious progress over the next two weeks, he likely will start the season as the primary back-up to all three interior line positions. In camp, he has yet to show he has what it takes to be an every down lineman for the team in the early part of the season. He has, however, shown that he is a solid candidate to be a fill-in guy. This is no disrespect to him, as it is expected of a rookie offensive lineman that fell to the mid-second round to take some time to learn an NFL system, especially considering there were no OTA’s or mini-camp this year.

Moving on to left tackle, many people question the reliability of second year player Jared Veldheer. That is, many people not on the Raider coaching staff. The staff, including offensive line coaches Bob Wylie and Steve Wisniewski, is sold on the idea that Veldheer can be a franchise left tackle. The folks against cite his inability to block speed rushers on the outside whenever they cut loose on the pass rush and nowhere was that more evident than on the fourth down sack he gave up to Parys Harrelson on Saturday night.

Then again, the Raiders do have some speed rushers of their own and are in a good position to help Veldheer grow in that regard throughout this season. To add to that, the more he sees this kind of aggression from defense, the more likely he is to become immune to it. If his game is solid in all aspects other than that, you really can’t blame the Raiders for allowing him to develop. After all, he is a better option than some past players.

Yes, it appears that the Raiders are indeed getting close to deciding on their final five up front. By most accounts, considering the players they lost, it doesn’t appear to be that bad of a unit. Thus far in preseason they have been really effective in their pass protection and it’s tempting to call them an upgrade from last year’s line in this area. The run blocking is probably the most troubling so far, but that is a much easier area to work on.

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