Rapport and reps with Derek Carr likely give the incumbent pivot the edge to start again
Thrust into the spotlight after the team sent stalwart center Rodney Hudson to Arizona, Andre James had the unenviable task of assuming the mantle at the all-important pivot spot in Las Vegas. It didn’t start out well, which isn’t surprising for a college tackle-turned-NFL center.
But as the season wore on, James settled in. The UCLA product is back and is once again the center of attention of a Las Vegas Raiders offensive line looking to become a powerhouse unit that is the heart of the Silver & Black offense.
James along with UCLA teammate Kolton Miller — the anchor at left tackle — were the only two Raiders offensive linemen to play all 1,140 offensive snaps up front last season. (In case you were curious, left guard John Simpson came in second with 1,113 snaps with guard/tackle Alex Leatherwood next with a total of 1,105 snaps. Right tackle Brandon Parker rounded out last year’s starting unit with 882 snaps.)
The sheer amount of reps and rapport James has built with not only his counterparts on the offensive line, but more importantly with quarterback Derek Carr makes the 6-foot-4, 300-pound 25-year-old the favorite to once again be the starting center this coming season. Carr even highlighted the importance of built-in synergy during his post mandatory camp press conference three weeks ago.
“Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s new terminology. There’s new words that mean new things. You don’t erase everything you’ve learned, but from a word standpoint, we’re using different words to get certain things done,” Carr began when asked about the new offense being installed by head coach and play caller Josh McDaniels. “There’s different philosophies and different things like that. And you’re trying to take it and execute what Josh wants at the highest level. That’s how I’ve always been. I told you guys, even with the other coaches that have been here, I try and take what they’re teaching me and do it at the highest level to where they’re like when they’re watching the game, that’s exactly what they want.
“So, there’s a lot of work going into it, with me, with Andre [James] and the communication and with the running backs. With how we run things, it takes everybody to be on the same page. So, it’s not just one group. I mean, it’s all of us making sure that we’re all on the same page so that we can execute at the high level.”
Bingo. Everyone on the same page is mission critical and having a center that took all the snaps with him is equally as vital for Carr. Much like the quarterback, when checks, audibles and adjustments are made at the line of scrimmage, James is there communicating and directing traffic on the offensive line. Much like Hudson did for Carr, James is assisting pointing out defenders and barking out alerts to put the Raiders offense in the best possible position to succeed.
That will come in very handy for the incumbent offensive line who have built a relationship already. This isn’t to say the newcomers to the line won’t be able to build that, too. But having it already in place with the core group is an outstanding trait. One that new offensive line boss Carmen Bricillo highlighted during his press conference.
“I think this is a group that enjoys each other and enjoys coming to work. I mean, truly. We are a group in there. When the door shuts, there’s not a lot of ego. We’re able to say, I don’t understand this, or I need help with that,” Bricillo noted. “It’s a collective in the fact that although it’s professional sports and we know that not everybody in the room is going to be here come September, nevertheless they’re willing to work with one another, coach one another, challenge one another. And then when they step on the field, they work. I mean, our individuals are no joke. I know that was a standard they had here before, and they haven’t proven me wrong thus far. It’s been a pleasure.”
There’s still plenty of work for James to do, however. Same can be said about the entire offensive line group, even Miller — despite how rock-solid he’s been as the blindside protector for Carr. James began the season getting bull rushed and knocked out of position, or worse, knocked off his feet. He was rendered ineffective when run blocking, but as the season progressed, he became more stable and created lanes and showed sound movement skills.
Yet, while he was able to hold his own as the season progressed, there were still too many instances where James was dislodged from his anchor. That’s not ideal for the pivot as pressure that arrives directly in front of the quarterback tends to be the most disruptive kind of pass rush. James is clearly learning and that’s not a shock considering before he played all the snaps last season, he totaled 116 snaps the two pervious years — all coming his rookie season in 2019.
From where the undrafted free agent and converted UCLA tackle has come to starting center is quite a journey and accomplishment for James. However, feel-good stories quickly evaporate if said athlete flounders. And James must flourish at the all-important pivot spot, especially considering he’s one of maybe two offensive linemen who are expected to play one single position.
Bricillo and McDaniels are keen on offensive linemen being able to play multiple positions, but Miller at left tackle and James at center may not play anywhere else.
“If you’re only going to play one position, you better be one of the best at it,” Bricillo said.
James must be in tip-top shape when the Raiders embark on training camp later in July. Las Vegas did hedge its bet at the center position by drafting Dylan Parham out of Memphis in the third round (90th overall) of the 2022 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 311-pound 22-year-old has the position versatility the new-era Raiders crave and he can play at guard and center. The potential is there for Parham to dislodge a starter at either position. Especially if he shows he’s a better option at the point of attack.
But James showed he can assimilate and impress enough to be a starter. So much so the prior regime handed him a a two-year contract extension worth $8.65 million (with $5.9 million in guarantees) before he took 100 percent of the offensive snaps this past season. There was belief in him then, and perhaps, there will be belief in him once again as the Raiders move forward. James must capture what every NFL player chases — sound consistency. If not, he’ll be looking over his shoulder a lot.