Jordy Nelson vs. Michael Crabtree: who’s better for the Oakland Raiders? It’s a question many in Raider Nation have been asking since GM Reggie McKenzie signed the free agent wideout from Green Bay. We take a look at the numbers and let you decide.

This offseason, the Oakland Raiders created a stir amongst Raider Nation when they released starting wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Rumors of Crabtree’s impending release started almost immediately after the disappointing 2017 campaign came to an end. And, while Crabtree was the Raiders’ most potent threat in the passing game, they decided to replace him with 32-year-old former Green Bay Packers wideout Jordy Nelson – a move many still question.

This surprised many as Nelson struggled last season without all-everything quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who missed much of the season with an injury. Nelson is coming off  his lowest total-yards performance in seven years after gaining just 482 yards in 2017. Pro Football Focus ran a graph showing this alleged overall decline, yet  what it doesn’t show is that most of Nelson’s “decline” in 2017 can be attributed to losing Rodgers for the season after his injury in a Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Wasn’t Easy for Many to Say Goodbye to Crabtree

Crabtree was a fan favorite in Oakland, mostly due to his late-game heroics and game-winning catches. What made the move even more surprising was new Raiders head coach Jon Gruden sounded like he had plans to keep Crabtree for the upcoming season.

“I got to bump into Crabtree,” Gruden said. “Hopefully, we can get the best out of Crabtree and his career. There’s some people in place, but we’ve got a number of issues that are concerning right now and we’re focusing on them.”

Fans and some in the media were caught off guard when news of Nelson’s signing and Crabtree’s release broke. Several narratives emerged from the ensuing coverage which made it seem to be the first blunder in Gruden’s second tenure. It looked, on paper, that the coach had cut one of the team’s most important weapons for a guy that was past his prime. To understand the move better, the Las Vegas Raiders Report did something that we haven’t seen so far when analyzing the move –  actually watch Jordy Nelson’s tape from last season.

You may be surprised by what we found when we combined the game tape with each players’ stats.

Breaking Down the Nelson vs. Crabtree Question

For this article, I watched every catch Jordy Nelson had last season. Also, for the three-season comparisons between the two players, I will be using Crabtree’s last three seasons, which is his entire Oakland career. I will be using the 2014, 2016, and 2017 seasons for Nelson because he tore his ACL on the opening drive of the 2015 season and did not play the rest of that year.

Let’s get started.

The first narrative that didn’t hold up during our film analysis is the idea that Nelson can’t run anymore. He is more than capable of getting behind the defense. If Rodgers did not have to move up in the pocket to avoid the rush, this would have been an easy score. The under-thrown ball allowed the defense to catch up and force Nelson out inside the 5-yard line. Nelson does a good job of making up for any top-end speed he may be lacking with great efficiency, and he doesn’t have any wasted movement. Nelson shows great drive on his routes and will add a deep threat to go with fellow receiver Amari Cooper.

Jordy Nelson is hands down a superior deep threat than Crabtree.

Consider this: the longest reception Crabtree had in his time with the Raiders came in 2016, which was his best season. His long of 56 yards that season was only four yards shy of his career long. He had a 60-yard reception twice in San Francisco during the 2010 and 2013 seasons. His season-longs while in Oakland were 38 yards in 2015, 56 yards in 2016 and 41 last year. Nelson has had at least one reception of at least 60 yards in six seasons – only missing the mark last year with a long of 58 yards.

Nelson has had at least one completion of at least 60 yards in six seasons – only missing the mark last year with a long of 58 yards.

Nelson’s season-longs over that mark read like something out of a video game. He has a season-high catch of 80 yards in 2010, 93 in 2011, 73 in 2012, 76 in 2013, 80 in 2014 and 60 in 2016. These numbers won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Crabtree’s career, as he was never known as a deep threat. Crabtree has always been known for his great hands and ability to make tough catches. Diving into these numbers shows some interesting facts you may be surprised to know.

Crabtree led the NFL in drops with nine during the 2016 season. He has been in the top 10 in dropped passes each of his three season in Oakland. He tied for seventh in 2015 with eight drops. Last season, he tied fellow Raiders tight end Jared Cook with five drops each. Nelson isn’t in the top 50 for any of those seasons.

Nelson was credited with four drops in 2014, two in 2016, and just one all of last season. That means Crabtree had more drops in each of his first two seasons than Nelson has in the last three seasons he played combined. This is most likely the single biggest reason Gruden made this roster move. Gruden will not tolerate dropped passes. If you cannot do your job on a consistent basis, you will not have a job on his team.

This next play highlights the importance of this stat.

The slant route is one of the most important routes in both Gruden’s and new offensive coordinator Greg Olson‘s offenses. This is their go-to route on third-and-medium situations. They have to have a guy that they know they can trust to come down with the pass. Here, Rodgers motioned to an empty 3×2 after recognizing man coverage. The running back, going in motion, pulled the linebacker from the middle of the field. This gave Nelson a nice opening to run his slant route. Plays like this will move the chains this season, and I’d expect Nelson to be on the receiving end of most of them.

Catching the ball wasn’t the only issue the offense, in general, had last season. The receiving corp had a hard time creating separation from the defense and giving the quarterback a window to throw into. This is often often referred to as “getting open,” and it is an area that Nelson excels.

Nelson’s ability to create space in small areas really showed up on film. This comeback route is a good example. Doing this against one of the better defenses in the NFL just makes it that much more impressive. The corner is playing an “over” technique, which can be exploited by comeback routes, but these are division rivals who are all to familiar with Rodgers’ propensity for throwing behind receivers. This was very good coverage.

It’s worth pointing out that the accuracy on this throw is important to this play’s success, but without Jordy Nelson creating the space for it, the throw would never have happened. Adding a route runner with the ability to get open will be a big part of upcoming resurgent season for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Nelson will be one of his favorite targets for his skill at finding, or creating, open field.

This level of chemistry between Rodgers and Nelson was very apparent. Whether it was Nelson uncovering as Rodgers rolled out of the pocket, or plays like this one, they always seemed to know where each other was. Here, Nelson is able to navigate through double coverage and another perfect pass from Rodgers results in a touchdown. Getting Carr and Nelson on the same page will take some time and work, but the upside is worth it.

Next, what really caught my attention was the difference in each players’ production compared to their opportunities. Comparing each players receptions per target as well as the yardage from those receptions is pretty eye-opening. It’s kind of like how a basketball player who scores 30 points on 15 shots is more impressive than a player who scores the same 30 points, but needs 40 shots to do so.

Jordy Nelson created and entire extra season worth of Crabtree’s production given basically the exact same level of opportunities.

In his time with Oakland, Crabtree was targeted 392 times while making the catch 232 times for a 59 percent reception average. Nelson was targeted 391 times, catching 248 of them for a 63 percent reception average. Those numbers are very close with Nelson coming up with 16 more completions. It’s when you factor in their production that these numbers really separate themselves.

With the 232 balls he caught in his time with the Raiders, Crabtree amassed 2,543 yards. He only hit the 1,000-yard mark only once with 1,003 yards in 2016. He had 922 yards in 2015 and 618 last season. By comparison, Nelson had 3,258 yards. That means Nelson gained 715 more yards on one less target. He had 1,519 yards in 2014, 1,257 yards in 2016, and the aforementioned 482 yards last season. Nelson created and entire extra season worth of Crabtree’s production given basically the exact same number of opportunities.

Ok, that’s where Nelson has the edge, but he is also more of a deep threat than Crabtree was in Oakland. Crabtree’s ability to score has to show up in the numbers, right? Again, the numbers not only favor Nelson, but they do so by a wide margin. Crabtree scored a respectable 25 times with the Raiders. He scored nine times in 2015 and then had eight touchdowns in each of his last two seasons as a Raider. Make no mistake, these are good numbers.

Nelson scored 33 over his three-year period with 13 in 2014, 14 in 2016, and six last season. This – yet again – is an entire season’s worth of Crabtree’s production difference despite his quarterback missing 10 games last season. It’s worth pointing out Carr missed two games during that time and has dealt with injury issues while playing.

The Bottom Line

When you consider these numbers, with fair comparisons in each vital statistical category, it was not a mistake letting Crabtree walk and signing Nelson. In fact, with the move the Raiders and Gruden upgraded at the position. Nelson has far surpassed Crabtree in production and physical ability yet doesn’t show any signs that he is wearing down. When a player’s game is based on sound mechanics, they can play for much longer than the guys who only rely on athleticism. I think a move many people mocked and were angered by will turn out to have the same effect as the Jerry Rice signing in 2001.

Jordy Nelson will make the Raiders offense better – hands down.

2 Responses

  1. Mike

    Nice work! ……AND you don’t have a locker room cancer in Crabtree anymore!

    Reply
  2. Jim

    Nice article, will have to bookmark this site! (Found this through the Raiders’ SBN site).

    Reply

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