Entering Week 4, the Las Vegas Raiders offense is firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Derek Carr has been electric, their receivers haveÂ collectivelyÂ been impressive, and theirÂ running gameÂ finally came alive in the second half against Miami.Â
But the Achilles heel for the league’s currentÂ top offenseÂ is clear: the offensive line. Not that anybody should be surprised by this. They were not a great group last season while dealing with injuries and drop-in play. In 2021, their starting five has suddenly morphed into this:Â
- Pro-Bowl level left tackle
- First time starting left guard
- First time starting center and converted tackleÂ
- Waiver wire pickup and journeyman right guard
- Rookie right tackle who played left tackle in college
As the kids would say, that’sÂ â€œBig Yikes.“Â And with the return of Richie Incognito pushed back at least three more weeks, this unit will not be getting any help soon. That is it. These are the people tasked with keeping Carr, the key to the whole operation, on his feet.
But of those five, who needs to step up their game the most? Some may say it’s Alex Leatherwood, who is already getting heat from Raiders fans despite having only three games (all against top defensive lines) under his belt. Or maybe it is John Simpson, one of Mike Mayock’s Clemson kids, a mauler in the run game but raw in the passing game.
The answer is neither of those guys. Instead, it is Andre ‘High Snap’Â James (let’s get that nickname trending) who faces the impossible challenge of filling Rodney Hudson’s shoes. Three games in, he has failed.
How has James looked so far?
According toÂ Pro Football Focus, James has a grade of 35.3 overall this year so far. His run-blocking grades out worse at 34.8 just three games in. You can add four penalties, first among centers, and several poor snaps that have killed offensive drives for Carr and Co.Â
To make matters worse, the Raiders gave James aÂ pay raiseÂ before the year. A nice reward for him doing nothing in 2020. Now granted, that contract is light by today’s NFL standards. The Raiders could get out of it next offseason with little left on their books. However, their apparent attempt to instill him with confidence (like they did with Darren Waller in 2019) has backfired up until this point.
Here are the bright sides, which Raider Nation tends to ignore. First, it’s been three games. Three! James, realistically, will get better as he goes along and works out the kinks. Second, whenever Richie returns, his presence to the left of James will undoubtedly help stabilize his play. The addition of another offensive lineman through trade or free agency would do the same.Â
In the event James does continue to struggle, the Raiders have backups in place to take over. Those backups are veteran Nick Martin, long-time Texans starting center, and the rookie and ultimateÂ Gruden Grinder,Â Jimmy Morrissey, who is on the practice squad. In other words, it’s not ‘do or die‘ with James.
Nevertheless, as they sit with a plush 3-0 record atop theÂ AFC West, the Raiders have raised the bar. They expect to keep rolling, and now so does most of the NFL world. But their continued success, especially on offense, is predicated on their ‘hog mollies‘ improving week-by-week.
And it starts and ends in the middle as their center must silence his critics- quickly.
*Top Photo: Associated Press/Rick Scuteri