Updated July 29, 2021 - 5:08 am
It’s a sports story older than championship parades: A young, unproven name replaces one of the finest players at his position and is subject to all the expectations — fair and otherwise — that come with it.
Andre James owns such a role as the new starting center for the Raiders.
He’s the guy after the guy. The one who inherits all that Rodney Hudson meant and then some.
James went undrafted out of UCLA in 2019 and figured his measurements —6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds — would move him from tackle in college to inside as a pro.
He figured that would mean guard. Figured wrong.
The Raiders traded a three-time Pro Bowler in Hudson and a seventh-round pick to Arizona in March for a third-round selection as a way to shed salary. But rare is such a decision made without management owning a certain level of confidence in the replacement.
At this point, such certainty seems mostly internal.
The Raiders actually doubled down by signing James to a three-year extension worth $12.5 million, with about $6 million guaranteed.
Not everyone believes it a wise move. Not yet, anyway.
Pro Football Focus ranked the league’s 32 starting centers entering this season. James was looking up at 31 others.
You can understand the last-place designation. James has started just one game and played only 116 offensive snaps the past two seasons. He had zero in 2020.
The center who was ranked No. 1?
“Every day I came in and tried to get a little information from him and get a little bit better,” James said. “Everything I learned from Rodney, I’m still using now. Little things that pay off huge in the NFL.”
He can’t be merely average while anchoring a rebuilt Raiders offensive line. He can’t fail and expect what was a top-10 offense last season to improve or even remain as such. He needs to be more than serviceable.
The Raiders also signed center Nick Martin to a one-year deal, a player who started all 62 games in which he played for the Texans from 2016-20. But the team’s massive leap of faith, until shown otherwise, is with James.
His quarterback won’t compare him to Hudson or anyone else, won’t make any predictions on how the fresh look might ultimately work. Derek Carr estimates he has shared thousands of snaps with James over a few years of practices and OTAs and COVID-prompted workouts at a public park.
“(James) started the Detroit game for us (in 2019) and did a great job — showed flashes of someone with a great understanding and toughness and all the traits you need at that spot,” Carr said. “It was hard (for James) to play behind Rodney, who everyone would probably say is the best center in the league. But now that Rodney is gone, Andre can step in.
“I feel super confident that he’s going to do a great job. We haven’t put pads on yet. We haven’t played any games yet. I don’t want to put any expectations out there. I’m just excited for him because he’s super smart and I believe he’s a good football player.”
Lean on others
The one thing James can’t do is over-think the room. Or, in this case, the huddle.
Things might be new up front, but the Raiders still have veteran Richie Incognito at one guard spot and a left tackle in Kolton Miller who is now working with a contract extension worth$42.6 million in guaranteed money.
Miller was a teammate of James at UCLA. Chemistry matters. So too should three preseason games to better connect Carr to a center not named Hudson for the first time in six years.
“It has always been my mentality that I’m going to prepare like I’m playing in every game,” James said.
He now gets that chance.
The guy after the guy — and all expectations that come with it.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.