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NAPA – This offseason, general manager Reggie McKenzie said he wanted to improve up front said he wanted to get bigger up front, and said the Raiders should “do the pushing around.”
He certainly gave offensive line coach Tony Sparano some tools do so. The line got bigger, faster and stronger this offseason, with added depth at every position.
As a composite, the Raiders starting five stands 6-foot-5, 325 pounds. There are two hulking tackles in Donald Penn and Menelik Watson, converted tackles Austin Howard and Khalif Barnes at guard, and a football wiz in aptly-named center Stefen Wisniewski.
The second team is loaded with experience and depth as well. Both lines have what Sparano prizes: versatility.
“It’s a huge value to have guys with flexibility,” he said. “You don’t want (one-position) players, particularly on the offensive line. On three occasions last year, we were down to our final lineman. We had to bounce people around. When you have players who can play several positions, which can be a real strength of a group.”
Those units have worked every practice together, a real benefit compared to an injury plague that swept through Napa and decimated the 2013 unit.
“We’re healthy right now, which is a start,” Sparano said. “As training camp has gone on, we’re getting progressively better every day. Anytime you can put the same lineup out there each day, you have a real chance to get better. Guys are certainly improving.”
The offensive line may be the Raiders’ greatest strength, and Sparano knows it. He believes the line can win games for the Raiders, to help establish early leads and finish off games down the stretch.
“Everyone on this offensive line is going to be huge and valuable for this team,” Howard told Guy Haberman and John Middlekauff on 95.7-FM. “Like Tony has said, we want to carry the cross. We want the responsibility on our back to lead this team.”
Offensive lines can help win games late by allowing an offense to run well between the tackles. Sparano believes his men are up to that task in the second season using a power-blocking scheme based on gap creation and control.
“I sure do,” he said. “Going into the 15th week of the season last year, we were one of the top teams in the league in rushing. The conversion to our style of rushing has gone well. I think the guys believe that we’re going to run the football and do it in a power scheme. We can run the zone scheme, but our guys are fit for this scheme and have adjusted to it well.”
Sparano spoke on several other topics during a discussion with CSN Bay Area. Here are some highlights from that interview:
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Q: On Menelik Watson’s camp work…
A: He’s been consistent in the sense that he’s practiced a lot, which is a good thing. Last year, unforuanetly, he struggled with injuries early in training camp and wasn’t able to be out there. Menelik is a talented kid and he’s competing at a high level right now. I’ve been pleased with his progress thus far.
Q: How has Donald Penn fit in?
A: Anytime you can add a veteran to a group, it helps. I think it’s important for the young players in the room to see what it should look like. By watching some of those guys, they can learn quickly. Donald sets a good example for the young players. He’s a competitive guy who started over 100 games in a row in this league.
Q: Is this a fresh start for him?
A: I really do. Whenever you move on from a team you’ve been at for a while, it’s fresh and it’s new and, when you get into the backside of your career, it’s nice to get into a new environment and splay with different people.
Q: Have you enjoyed coaching this particular group?
A: I’m lucky that it’s a good group of guys. Last year at this time, we had gone through five or six different lineup changes due to injuries. While it’s part of the game, we’re thankful that we haven’t had to deal with that.
Q: How have Barnes and Howard done with the conversion inside?
A: Khalif played in there last year, and has played four positions over the course of his career. That’s been no problem for Khalif. Austin is making the transition for the first time and he’s doing a good job with it. I’ve been pleased with what they’ve done. The product doesn’t have to be finished right now. It needs to be finished in three weeks.
Q: How does having a center with tremendous football smarts in Stefen Wisniewski help the line as a whole?
A: Our game is really complicated, and it’s important to have someone who can keep everything together and even take some responsibility off the quarterback at times. Wisniewski is probably one of the brightest guys I’ve been around at his position. That provides a comfort for us and I’m sure for the quarterback to help the offense get lined up right on every play.
Q: Menelik has said that he likes to play angry. Is that a good thing?
A: I do think it’s a good thing to have a chip on your shoulder. The same thing can be said for our entire group right now. … Menelik has something to prove. He’s aware of where he was drafted and that he needs to play well for us right now. I like the edge he has about it. I haven’t had to tell him to calm down yet.