Well. That was quite the year.
The Raiders reached the NFL playoffs as the No. 8 seed against all odds. The Jon Gruden situation became the talk of the league after private emails were found to contain troubling language and content, and led to his release. That alone would have been enough to send any NFL team reeling but it was followed by the tragedy surrounding Henry Ruggs 156 mph drunken crash that took the life of an innocent woman.
Mix in losing the highest-paid No. 2 back of Kenyan Drake and Darren Waller switching from elite, unstoppable tight end to mostly injured and all but forgotten. The Raiders were playing uphill after the initial month of the season. They now turn to Josh McDaniels as the new head coach, luring him from his nine-year stretch as the Patriots offensive coordinator. He, in turn, tabbed the New England Wide Receiver Coach of Mick Lombardi to become the offensive coordinator. Make no mistake – this is McDaniel’s offense, and he brings one of the lengthiest resumes in the NFL as an offensive coordinator.
McDaniels was a position coach with the Patriots from 2001 to 2005 and then spent three years as their offensive coordinator. He left to become the head coach at the Broncos for two years but then was fired and became the Rams offensive coordinator for 2011 before jumping back to the Patriots, where he’s directed the offensive for the last ten years. That’s a total of 14 years as an offensive coordinator – he’ll have a controlling hand in the offense.
The move to Las Vegas comes as a minor surprise. The assumption was that when McDaniels accepted the head coach job at the Colts in 2018 and then withdrew the acceptance, that it was about him remaining in New England to eventually replace Bill Belichick as the head coach. This is the first time that the Patriots haven’t had Tom Brady or Josh McDaniels in 22 years.
McDaniels served as the offensive coordinator for three Super Bowl championships. But he was a previous head coach for the Broncos and that didn’t even last two full years before he was fired. He arrived in 2009 and went 8-8 with quarterback Kyle Orton, running backs Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, and wideout Brandon Marshall as the lone offensive star.
In 2010, Marshall left and McDaniels was dismissed after the Broncos fell to 3-9, on the way to a 4-12 finish. He later said that while he knew football, he wasn’t as versed in people and controlling an organization. The Broncos opened 6-0 in 2009 but ended 2-8. That poor showing continued in 2010 and McDaniels was involved in another “spygate” situation when the Broncos were caught filming a 49ers practice in London. McDaniels and the Broncos were both fined $50,000 and he was fired a month later.
He knows offense. While his tenure at the Patriots relied onTom Brady for all but two seasons, he adapted to both a running quarterback in 2020 and then a rookie pocket passer last season. McDaniels rarely used any elite receivers other than Rob Gronkowski (2012-2018) and Randy Moss (2007-2008). Even with Brady, his offenses usually ended up around No. 10 to No. 15 in passing yards in most years. That fell apart in 2020 when Cam Newton and company only threw for 3043 yards (No. 31) but the rookie Mac Jones brought them back up to No. 14 with 4,028 pass yards.
McDaniels has long relied on a sound-rushing offense. In almost every year, the Pats would turn in Top-5 stats in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. But invariably, it came from a committee approach. McDaniels carried that over to the Broncos with Moreno and Buckhalter. They did ride the hot hand in many cases, but the Patriots offense is complicated and involves all of the offense without relying on a single player other than the quarterback.
Last season was a case in point. Damien Williams (202-929-15) was the primary, but Brandon Bolden and Rhamondre Stevenson were both constantly involved even after James White was lost. Even though the quarterback was a rookie, Mac Jones spread the ball around to his wideouts with Jakobi Meyers as the primary with 83 catches for 866 yards but Kendrick Bourne also caught 55 passes for 800 yards and five scores. Hunter Henry also was second only to Meyers with 75 targets, and he led the team with nine touchdowns.
McDaniels prefers an accurate, smart quarterback, a committee backfield with a pass-catching third-down back, reliance on a tight end at least for red-zone receptions if not more, and a diverse set of receivers mixed and matched according to game situation. He’s been very consistent and it continues to work because it is so diverse and complicated – so many players are involved and it adjusts to the situation so it is harder to prepare to defend.
This will be the Patriots/McDaniels scheme. New England wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi follows him to become the new offensive coordinator. Carmen Bricillo also transfers over to remain an offensive line coach.
This effective and well-tested scheme now is applied to a passing attack that bounced around between No. 13 and No. 24 in quarterback fantasy points for all four years of Jon Gruden’s tenure. The Raiders were Top-5 in 2019 and 2020 in rushing attempts before plummeting last year and were usually Top-10 throwing to running backs, including No. 1 just last year with 118 completions to the position.
McDaniels arrives to a roster that has a strong tight end and a similar set of average wideouts.
McDaniels did a great job last year adjusting the passing scheme to a rookie pocket passer, and he inherits a capable Derek Carr who comes off a career-best 4,804 passing yards with 23 touchdowns. Carr was on fire to start 2021 before Gruden left and Ruggs literally crashed. He’s in the final year of his current contract so how well he meshes with the new offensive scheme will be critical to him being extended or allowed to hit free agency in 2023.
Josh Jacobs is also in the final year of his rookie contract, and he fits nicely into the primary ball carrier role that always exists in McDaniel’s scheme though he’s less likely to crack the Top-10 for fantasy running backs in a committee backfield that will likely use someone else for the bulk of receptions. Kenyan Drake was signed to a shockingly lucrative contract last year as the No. 2 back, but he was lost to injury in Week 12 and had only a marginal impact. He’s expected to either restructure his deal or be released as his salary jumps from $3 million to $8.25 million this year which would make him among the top ten highest-paid backs in the league. He could fit in as the No. 2 back and the scheme certainly calls for one (or two).
There is also speculation that James White could show up, especially if Drake is released.
Darren Waller fits into the scheme well, though he comes off a surprisingly down year. He was the No. 2 fantasy tight end for 2019 and 2020. His stock remains high in the new offense.
The expectation is that the Raiders use one of their early picks on a speedy wideout to replace Henry Ruggs, and that could end up as their current No. 22 pick in the first round. Hunter Renfrow evolved into the primary receiver last year and his slot role is very popular in McDaniels’ offense, so he should remain a strong fantasy play. None of the rest of the wideouts broke 50 catches or 600 yards, so there could be other movements in the draft or free agency to upgrade an otherwise mediocre set of wideouts. Then again, that’s what McDaniels was given in most years running the Pats offense.
Fantasy football takeaway
The fantasy fortunes of the Raiders’ offense won’t likely see a leap, at least not in the first year of the installation of McDaniel’s scheme. Derek Carr is a capable quarterback and very much in the mold of a smart pocket passer that thrives in the scheme. This is a contract year for him as well, so he’ll need to give confidence that he’s the guy for McDaniel.
The backfield won’t change too much. Josh Jacobs is also in a contract year and has plenty of motivation to do well, but he’s more likely to see fewer receptions after jumping from 33 to 54 last year. That also reflected the loss of Kenyan Drake in the latter half of the season. Drake could return to that receiving role as the change-of-pace back, but he’ll need to take a hefty pay cut to remain. And McDaniels could end up bringing on James White or some other back as well. He won’t be happy with just one active back. He usually relies on at least two if not three in every game, so the fantasy prospects are not encouraging here, but Jacobs should hold onto his Top-15 level or a bit better.
Darren Walls was shockingly ineffective in many games for 2021 after being elite for two straight seasons. His stock should remain high and any concerns about him are more regarding the decline last year than what his role would be in the new scheme. Walls is well suited for a “Gronkowski” role.
Installing a new offense usually takes more time with the wide receivers, though Carr is capable veteran and the current receivers have chemistry with him. Hunter Renfrow’s dramatic improvement in the second half of the 2021 season is more likely to continue than to decline. Chances are best that he’ll be the clear No. 1 wideout and that the rest of the receivers remain mediocre. If they draft a speedster in an early round, he’ll play an immediate role but will be very unlikely to produce consistent, notable fantasy stats every week.