Jon Gruden’s job as a color analyst gave him an interesting vantage point to evaluate a wide array of talent. This unique position provided the offensive-minded Oakland Raiders head coach a window into the kind of offensive personnel he would desire to field in a modern-era NFL system.
One of the biggest questions about Gruden’s return to the sidelines is whether the game has changed too much and passed him by. Since he has remained closely evolved in the sport, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. This means more college-style schemes and play-calling, which includes a lot of run-pass options, spread elements, and running from unconventional backfield designs (shotgun, wing, pistol, so forth).
Gruden’s two biggest splashes in free agency were reminiscent of how he liked to build in his previous Oakland days and, to an extent, in Tampa Bay. In a league where younger and faster is all the rage, he still prefers established veterans.
An “M&M” backfield
By paying 2017 starting running back Marshawn Lynch his roster bonus, Oakland effectively guarantees Beast Mode will return in ’18. Lynch visibly improved as the year went on last season, likely due to improved conditioning after missing the previous year.
Lynch’s splits reflect as much. He played five games in December, rushing for a season-best 5.2 yards per carry when compared to all other months. In three September games, the 31-year-old ran for only 3.9 yards per tote — a number that would dip to 3.6 over his next 87 attempts (seven games). Lynch scored twice over his first seven games (once per 36 carries) and five times in the final eight outings (27 handles).
Oakland mostly pulled him in clear passing situations, inserting a blend of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. It will be much of the same, though the addition of Doug Martin could jumble the rotation a great deal.
Martin is better receiver than Lynch, albeit not by a drastic margin. The latter is a more reliable blocker in pass protection. Richard arguably has the best hands of this lot, and there will be some competition for the third-down chores.
Lynch turns 32 years old April 22. Entering his age-29 season, Martin also is no spring chicken in running back years. Just how much of a workload either back is capable of shouldering is the elephant in the room, and the most predictable scenario is these well-seasoned vets rotate series with the regularity of a high-fiber diet. Fantasy gamers will be frustrated trying to trust each player when both are healthy.
Martin enjoyed two monster seasons in his career, both topping 1,400 rushing yards, and followed each them with consecutive injury-plagued encores. Most alarming of all, Martin has averaged 2.9 yards per carry in his past 282 carries. For comparison, only three NFL backs rushed 282 times or more last season, and Melvin Gordon’s 3.9 yards-per-carry average was the worst of the trio.
Martin’s woes can partially be blamed on Tampa’s offensive line, yet he was unable to break a run longer than 27 yards in that span. It begs the question whether he simply is ready for a fork in the back. His collegiate workload was limited, and if his NFL pattern holds true, he’s in for a rebound season.
Oakland’s offensive line was a disaster last year after being among the strongest units entering the season. It, too, is poised to bounce back in 2018.
All things considered, it will require a significant injury to one of them for either back to carry the ball north of 225 times in 2018. They should cannibalize each other’s fantasy offerings, and both present major injury risks. Treat the duo as merely roster depth with flex consideration in mind.
Jordy Nelson in, Michael Crabtree out
Quarterback Derek Carr’s favorite target has been released, which was rumored to be in the works for months because of a high cap figure. Green Bay’s surprise release of Jordy Nelson, and his subsequent signing with Oakland, made axing Crabtree a reality.
Crabtree averaged a healthy nine looks per game in his first two seasons with the Raiders. He still managed nearly eight per contest in his 13 outings last season. Targets won’t be an issue for Nelson. He didn’t come to the Bay Area to stand around. Chemistry needs to be established, and there’s no doubt he will work closely with Carr during the offseason.
The biggest area of concern for Nelson is how much does he have left in the tank. Is there one more monster season left in there? We saw a totally different player when Aaron Rodgers went down in 2017. It is easy to blame Brett Hundley for the regression, but Nelson fell so far off the map that there really could be more to it. When wide receivers “lose it” in the NFL, most tend to precipitously regress. Separation through precise route running has always been Nelson’s hallmark, but if the feet don’t move like required, his tool chest immediately becomes barren. Due to this style of creating separation, timing and chemistry with his quarterback are everything.
Nelson is a risk-reward WR2 in both scoring systems. His days of 90-plus receptions and 14 or more scores are almost certainly behind him in his age-33 season. Look for his trademark big plays to remain a staple of Nelson’s game — since becoming a regular starter in 2011, he has a season long of at least 58 yards in each year. It would be more likely to see him post lower reception and yardage figures and high TD numbers than a purely dominant statistical output.
We will dive deeper into the impact on Carr and Amari Cooper’s fantasy values as we approach the heart of fantasy draft season. Nelson’s addition should help both players — possibly making this one of the most potent combinations in the NFL.