NAPA -- J’Marcus Webb spent last fall away from football. The first such break of his athletic life wasn’t welcome. At times, it was downright tortuous.
Webb got hurt during 2014 training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, and was cut before the regular season. It wasn’t a good start to his fourth NFL season, which ended before it truly began.
As he got healthy again, the urge came back. It was time to hit.
“I’ve been playing this game for years, and your body gets used to hitting and striking guys at a certain point in the year,” Webb said. “And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the grocery store pushing around carts and grabbing cereal boxes. That’s when you realize that you really need to get back into things.”
Webb spent a few weeks with the Minnesota Vikings, but that didn’t scratch the itch. He set out to get in terrific shape and eventually claim a starting job.
“The Raiders,” Webb said, “offered me a great opportunity to do that.”
At guard, a position he had never played.
The career tackle was taken aback by a suggested position switch, but the man making the request carried a lot of clout. Raiders offensive line coach Mike Tice helped draft Webb in Chicago, and gave him a starting gig as a rookie. Tice was Webb’s coach for all but one of his 45 career starts. There’s trust between the two, and Webb followed Tice into the unknown of the interior line.
“I was hesitant at first, but I eventually looked at it as a challenge,” Webb said. “Once you get your feet set and you shoot your hands and you work hard, you can have some fun knocking guys around on the inside. Things happen a little bit quicker at guard, but I’ve worked hard this offseason to get ready for the position. I think it should work out pretty well.”
The switch has worked out well thus far. Webb has been the first-team right guard since Raiders minicamp in mid June, and plans to hold on to the position.
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“My mindset was to come in and start,” Webb said. “I didn’t play at all last year, and I wanted to make sure I was in the starting group at whatever spot Coach Tice wanted me to play.”
Tackle is Webb’s natural position. At 6-foot-7, 330 pounds, he’s certainly built like one. The position wasn’t always kind to him in the NFL. He gave up 12 sacks each in his first two seasons -- you certainly remember Webb drawing quarterback Jay Cutler's ire in Chicago -- with improved performance in his third.
The position switch could give Webb’s career new life.
Considering the Raiders’ tackle depth, Tice thought a move inside could help team and player.
“That’s why we decided to slide Webb in and give him a chance,” Tice said. “We were lacking some foot quickness in there last year. We were edgy inside last year. Webb has the quickness, which is a good thing.”
The Raiders hope Webb can end their recent troubles at the position. Austin Howard was moved from right tackle to right guard last year, but the experiment was abandoned after a season. Lucas Nix manned the position in 2013 and was the NFL’s worst right guard, according to rankings from Pro Football Focus. Mike Brisiel played there in 2012, as a zone blocker for a scheme that never panned out.
Webb is working with the first unit right now. Rookie fourth-round pick Jon Feliciano is a long-term option there, but has played second-team left guard to this point and could end up a reserve interior lineman. Khalif Barnes has played inside, but is bouncing around and working almost exclusively at tackle through five camp practices.
Tice thinks Webb has the tools and commitment to learn the position on the job and help add grit to the offensive line.
“For a big man he can run, and he’s certainly quick,” Tice said. “The biggest thing about being 6-foot-8 on the inside is keeping his pad level down. He started 44 games for me in Chicago at both tackle spots and never played inside at all. Things happen quick and you have to get your hands in faster. He’s a little slow with his hands at times and can get a little high. He has to continue to work on those things. But athletically, he fits. The change of direction? He definitely has it.”
Webb has enjoyed the transition, and can’t wait to hit an opponent as a pulling guard with a full head of steam.
“That,” he said, “is going to be fun.”