NAPA – Donald Penn had played 24 snaps at right tackle in 12 NFL seasons. That came in a pinch, when injuries to Menelik Watson and Vadal Alexander in the 2016 regular-season opener at New Orleans left the Raiders without someone to man the post.
Kelechi Osemele was able to make a move to left tackle, but not across the line. Penn made a sacrifice and moved right. That’s no easy switch, especially on the fly.
It proved successful. The Raiders won with a late offensive flurry made possible by solid line play. The switch, however, was temporary.
Penn went back to his natural spot, and completed a career year that earned a Pro Bowl honor. He got another one last season, but the Raiders still looked toward the future in the NFL draft.
Makes sense. Penn is 35, and doesn’t plan to play much longer.
He’s also rebounding from Lisfranc foot surgery last December. Rehab kept him on the physically unable to perform list until Tuesday morning, when he was able to practice and…play right tackle.
Penn said the prospect was broached during talks to restructure his contract – a new deal was done Monday evening -- but the Raiders formally asked him to play on the right before Tuesday’s practice.
“I told them I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team win,” Penn said. “If you guys feel like this is going to be in the best interest of the team, I’ll do it. Today it felt very awkward and rusty, but I need time to develop. I don’t know if that’s going to be a permanent thing or not yet, but it is something we’re testing out. I told them I’m all for it.”
The transition will have some hiccups. Footwork that’s so natural from the left is now backwards. He has to de-program certain instincts including, it seems, where to stand in the huddle.
“I was standing by (left guard Kelechi Osemele) in the huddle and he was like, ‘Hey bro.’ and I was like, ‘Oh (shoot), let me go over here,’” Penn said. “It’s little things like that. One time I got in my left-handed stance on accident, and I actually had to switch real fast.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s tough. One thing that I’ve been, I’ve been a good athlete. I’m a good athlete, so I think me being athletic can make that transition a little easier and smooth. I don’t know if it’s going to be permanent or not, but we have a good thing going here. I just want to help us win. I’m not playing too much longer. I just want to win. If this is going to help us win, I’m all in for it. I just want to win.”
Offensive line play will be integral to winning efforts. The Raiders have issues at offensive tackle, especially on the right. Breno Giacomini has missed most of camp with a knee injury. A bum ankle has kept third-round rookie Brandon Parker out of the mix until recently. David Sharpe is in the mix, but must be more consistent to be counted on.
Miller played on the right at UCLA but the results weren’t always great and coaches seem set on him playing left tackle. That left Penn to consider a switch that could help strengthen the line.
It won’t be easy, but Penn’s going to give it a shot. He’s learning a new position while mastering Jon Grduen’s often complex scheme – Penn only participated in walk-throughs and individual drills during the offseason program – and finding true football shape.
Penn’s at his playing weight and in solid cardiovascular condition. He’s working hard to master the scheme and the variables within in it.
Penn’s open to counsel Miller, as he has during downtimes in practice and the preseason opener.
"When I was coming up, I had some good vets that did the same to me,” Penn said. “I’m not stupid, I’m not dumb. I’m 35 years old. I don’t want to play football too much longer myself. I understand what’s going on here. I’m just trying to help as much as possible because when I do leave here, I’m going to leave friends here. Me and Kolton, we’re developing a good friendship. I want to have him ready so when he goes out there he can succeed. It’s not like I’m over here jealous or mad. I’m trying to help the kid out so the kid can be as good as possible because it’s going to help us out as a team.”
Penn has been healthy most of career. The 2017 finale was the only regular-season game he has missed in a dozen years. Being a step removed from the practice grind tested his patience, especially when a return got closer and closer. While Tuesday’s story focused on a possible position switch, Penn was just happy to be practicing again.
“I had a lot of down days where I had to pick myself up and go,” Penn said. “This was my first injury and it was a major one. … It was tough, and I just kept fighting. I had a great support system. Good coaching staff. One thing I do like about them, they were upfront with me. They told me a lot of stuff. They weren’t trying to hide stuff. They’ve been like that ever since they got here, so I can really respect that, especially being an older veteran guy. So I knew what the plan was. I knew what direction they were going in with me and other things.
“The rehab process was hard. I started 170 straight games until this. It was the first time missing all of this time. It was very hard. I’m happy this is behind me.”