Hayden Nadolny is back with his multi-part series on the state of the Oakland Raiders roster. Today, he looks at the current stable of running backs and how the team might supplement the position in both free agency or perhaps the draft.
If past Jon Gruden Raiders offenses are anything to go by, the running backs are going to be heavily leaned on focal point. As we have seen with countless of the best teams in the league, a running game is paramount to success. Running backs will be asked to do everything in Gruden’s offense, while we will likely see a heavy dose of a fullback on the field as a lead blocker. This positional group has a lot of promise in terms of potential, though in one case in particular, complete buy-in to the new regime will be essential if that potential is to turn into production.
Lynch is very much like a box of chocolates, and that’s great. Except when it isn’t. Lynch was all over the place last season for the Raiders such that none of the coaches could get a handle on him. He marches to the beat of his own drum, and in a game that requires military precision and buy-in, such a march can stick out negatively like a sore thumb.
The offense installed more outside zone runs to accommodate Lynch, but this turned out to be largely ineffective. He started the year off great, putting defensive tackle Jurell Casey on his behind, while Oaklanders will forever remember Lynch’s dance in week 2 against the Jets. He then stagnated (much like the rest of the team) and the coaches were considering moving on from him after he was suspended for shoving an official.
Once he returned to the team, he was a different player. His second half of the season was one of the better performances by a running back in the entire league, rushing for 625 yards and 5 touchdowns and an impressive 4.63 yards per carry. His hands however leave much to be desired in the passing game, which could limit his opportunities in Gruden’s offense. I see Lynch fitting into Gruden’s offense similarly to the way Gruden used Tyrone Wheatley, and to a lesser extent (in short yardage situations) Zack Crockett. Until Gruden and Lynch meet in person, it really is difficult to predict whether or not Lynch will remain a Raider in 2018.
Richard was a bright spot on the Raiders roster in 2016 as a rookie, but had a sophomore slump this past season. He really struggled on punt returns whereby his hands consistently let him down, leading to multiple fumbles. This also carried over to his running back duties, where he fumbled entering the red zone against Philadelphia on Christmas Night. Fumbling was only an issue his final year (of four) in college (7 fumbles, of which 5 were lost). He didn’t have a single fumble his rookie season as a pro. Hence, there’s a reasonable chance his fumble issues this past season were an outlier and that the right coaching can rectify it. Richard’s best attribute is his catching ability out of the backfield. He could see a wealth of targets in Gruden’s offense.
Washington is a very similar styled runner to Richard. The similarity in styles gave former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave headaches trying to get touches for the both of them back in 2016. In 2017, Washington averaged a mediocre 2.7 yards per carry. Known for his catching ability coming out of Texas Tech, Washington really struggled this season as a pass catcher. He is however; much better in pass protection than Richard, which is a main reason why the coaching staff persevered with him last season. Other than that, Richard has him covered in every other facet of the game. It won’t be surprising if the Raiders move on from one of Washington or Richard in the off-season, electing to add another RB who adds a different dimension to the personnel group instead of having two similar guys on the roster.
Hood spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, being brought up to the 53-man roster and being active against the Bills during the week of Marshawn Lynch’s suspension. Per various media reports, Hood didn’t impress the previous coaches and it’s conceivable to think that his time in the NFL will be short lived.
Olawale is the forgotten fullback. Featuring consistently under Musgrave, he, like many other offensive players, went missing under Todd Downing. He is a solid runner in short yardage situations, and a very good run blocker. His best asset is as a pass catcher both when split out wide on a linebacker, and out of the backfield. Expect a whole lot of ‘Spider 2 Y Banana’ in 2018 with Olawale a key component of the offense.
Free Agency Targets:
With Lynch a 50/50 proposition, the Raiders may need to find a number one running back, and possibly a change up if they want to have a different style to Richard or Washington as an additional change of pace back. In Gruden’s first stint with the Raiders, he used every running back on the roster. They all played a part, so he may not necessarily be looking for a bell cow that will carry the ball 20 times a game. The position in free agency has some great players available, and the rookie class of 2018 is as deep as it has been in years. The Raiders will likely sign one back in free agency with the potential of drafting another as well. The Steelers Le’Veon Bell is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, though the Steelers will likely franchise tag him. If he hits free agency, even costing a possible $12 million per year, he’s a guy that the Raiders must target. He is the best in the league and would cause havoc running behind the Raiders offensive line. If not Bell, the Raiders will consider a number of players, each of who would fit seamlessly within Gruden’s offense.
Lewis a very solid all-round back whose talents in a by-committee system would translate well to the Raiders offense. He had a career best season in 2017, going for more than 1,000 running and receiving yards, with nine touchdowns. He ran at an impressive five yards per carry, and despite his limited sample size (one full season as a starter), he’s never run at a clip under 4.4 yards per carry. Lewis is also a solid pass protector, making him a true three-down back threat.
McKinnon is a prototypical scat back that has elite hands coming out of the backfield. He caught a very good 51 catches in 2017 in addition to his 570 yards rushing (albeit at just 3.8 yards per carry). The best trait about McKinnon is that he is great in pass protection. This is quite unique given that most scat backs with good hands are poor in pass protection. This versatility would allow McKinnon to be relied upon a bit more in the pass game, and his skill as a blocker in particular could help Gruden draw up plays to isolate Olawale in favourable one-on-one match ups. That being said, if the Raiders were to bring McKinnon into the fold, they would still need to find a highlight back, which would most likely come through the draft.
If the Raiders are looking for a runner in a similar ilk to Beast Mode, Blount would be a perfect addition. There are few who run harder, and despite his propensity to be put in short yardage situations, there’s only one season since 2013 by which Blount has averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Blount however is not involved in the passing game, so he’d be limited in Gruden’s offense. If he were to sign, he’d need to be paired with a another running back who is better rounded in the passing game (in addition to Richard or Washington). The last two seasons Blount has been on the winning team in the Super Bowl, so no doubt the Raiders would hope that trend were to continue if he joined the silver and black.