NAPA -- It's a half-hour after Monday morning practice and Jared Veldheer is wide-awake when he slips into a dream.
Sitting on an upholstered stump, shaded by the roof of the Raiders' outdoor exercise area, the left tackle is visualizing violence. He grins widely and his eyes light up.
For the first nine minutes of our interview, Veldheer was accommodating and diplomatic, offering amiable responses with an occasional ray of insight. In the 10th minute, when I ask if nastiness is a requirement at his position, he undergoes a transformation.
This provides a glimpse of what lurks within this 6-foot-8, 320-pound punisher.
"You take pride in being able to sustain a block, to finish it, to get people on the ground," he says, grin expanding. "As an offensive lineman, it's one of the best feelings there is. That's when it's the most fun.
"Whether it's driving someone down on a zone (run) play or if it's dropping back and finishing someone in pass protection, it's always one of the best feelings in the game. That, and when you get a good shot on someone when you're helping out."
Of Oakland's 11 starters on offense, Veldheer may rank 11th on the list of concerns for the coaching staff and front office. They believe in quarterback Carson Palmer, but they need to see how he'll adapt to a new offense. They love what running back Darren McFadden has to offer, but they wonder if he can stay healthy. They like their depth at
They have confidence in their offensive line, but there remains some form of competition at most of the positions.
Veldheer, however, is entrenched at left tackle. No buts, no further questions.
That makes him arguably the most important member of the offensive unit. When I recently asked general manager Reggie McKenzie to name four positions, quarterback excluded, at which any contender must be strong, he identified a defensive lineman, a linebacker and a defensive back. That's one member, regardless of where he lines up, of each sub-unit.
The fourth position -- and the only one about which McKenzie was specific -- was "blind-side tackle." With a right-handed quarterback, it's the left tackle. With the Raiders, whose hopes this season rise and fall with Palmer, that's Veldheer.
"Offensively, you want to have playmakers, but I think you can function with a solid running back and some solid receivers," McKenzie said. "It would help if you have that threat, that guy (opposing defenses) have to account for, whether he's at the tight end or wide receiver position. But I think you can work around that.
"The offensive line, to me, is about building a unit -- but if you have somebody who can shut down a premier pass rusher, you've got something special."
Veldheer, 25, is not yet special; he's still a student in classrooms taught by the likes of Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, who beat him for two sacks last November.
But Veldheer's Pro Bowl potential was apparent a week earlier, when he held Minnesota pass-rush specialist Jared Allen without a sack for the first time in 12 games.
What more could be expected from a third-round pick (2010) out of tiny Hillsdale College, a small Division II school in Michigan known less for its football than its pre-abolition policies against discrimination? Having played several positions (in the Wing-T offense) at Forest Hills High in Grand Rapids before settling in at left tackle for Hillsdale, Veldheer operates with the fury of someone out to prove he belongs in the NFL.
"Coming from a small school, I've always felt I need to keep working and keep working and keep working," he says. "I just want to keep that approach, keep fine-tuning techniques."
It's working. Veldheer last year reduced by half (7.5 to four) the number of sacks he allowed, while reducing his penalties from 15 to 10. He looks capable of being a 10-year left tackle, the belated correction to the mistake that was Robert Gallery.
And as responsible as he is for protecting Palmer, Veldheer also punishes defenders when the Raiders want to run. They averaged nearly 5 yards per carry behind him last season.
"When you're able to run the ball, you're slowing that pass rusher down -- and you're wearing on him," Veldheer says, nodding his head.
And here he pauses, his eyes widening as his tongue flashes across his teeth.
"You definitely have to have a little bit of a mean streak," he says. "That's what makes it fun. If you don't have mean streak, I don't know what you're going to like about being an O-lineman."
There's that grin again. Grinning is what follows a fantasy about destroying an opponent. Yes, indeed, a good dream, even while awake, can warm the soul.