It might be early, but it’s not too soon to look at possible breakout players for the Oakland Raiders and who could have great impact on how the team fares in what should be a bounce-back season.
Coach Jon Gruden is known for having one of the most complicated offensive systems in the NFL. Extremely wordy calls such as “Flip Right Double X Jet 36 Counter Naked Waggle at 7 X Quarter” are enough to give quarterbacks nightmares. Despite a difficult new system, several Raiders are primed to have eye-opening seasons and become Oakland’s latest breakout players.
Rookies such as Maurice Hurst, PJ Hall and “technical rookie” Gareon Conley, who really didn’t play at all last year, are all expected to produce.
Add some key returning veterans and it’s easy to see the Raiders are building a more solid foundation. Let’s look at some players I believe will be breakout players in 2018.
The Key to 2018?
Arden Key was selected out of Louisiana State in the third round of this year’s draft. In just his sophomore year, Key set a Southeastern Conference single-season sack record with 12. Let me say that again . . . Key set an SEC single-season sack record. That’s no easy feat in what most observers consider the best conference in college football. Key struggled with both weight and injury problems his junior year and saw his numbers decline. That wasn’t enough to scare off the Raiders, who took a chance on the talented player.
With the right coaching and conditioning, Key can be a force and one of the Raiders’ key breakout players. At 6-5, 250, he has prototypical defensive-end size. He will also have the benefit of playing with Khalil Mack. Expect to see a much improved middle-pass rush with the addition of Hall and Hurst, while Mack will see the bulk of the double teams. If Key buys in, it’s not out of the question he’ll return to his early college form and pile up the sacks. Look for Key to compete for the team lead with double-digit sacks.
In Amari We Trust
Wide receiver Amari Cooper could be poised for a big fourth season in Oakland as a breakout player in 2018.
In his first two years, Cooper averaged 1,111 yards and 5.5 TDs. He battled injuries and an offense that struggled to get on track in 2017, when his numbers declined. In 14 games, Cooper caught just 48 passes for 680 yards, but had a career-high seven TDs. In three seasons, Cooper is averaging just under 1,000 yards with six touchdowns and 68 receptions.
Those numbers are good, but they can be better. Cooper was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. A team investing that much needs more return on its investment. The right system could make the difference. Tim Brown, in his mid-30’s, and Jerry Rice, in his late 30’s, and early 40’s, were ‘able to be extremely productive in Gruden’s system. Cooper has the ability to be a 1,500-yard, 100-catch, 10-touchdown receiver. He just hasn’t found the right system to utilize his talents.
Cooper’s best game last season was a Thursday night matchup with Kansas City, where he saw the majority of snaps from the slot. He was able to get loose for 11 receptions, 210 yards and two touchdowns. That equates to 30 percent of his 2017 production in just one game. With the addition of Martavis Bryant and Jordy Nelson — who also could be breakout players — expect to see Cooper working from the slot more often. That will allow him to use his footwork and quickness to find openings in the defense. With quarterback Derek Carr also benefiting from the new offense, expect Cooper to see a lot more passes. I see Cooper having a 105-catch season with 1,275 yards and 11 TDs. Gruden will take Cooper back to the Pro Bowl.
Mr. Smith Goes to Oakland
Through four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Keith Smith has two carries for five yards and no touchdowns — not an uncommon stat line for a traditional blocking fullback. Expect his role to change now that he’s in Gruden’s offense. Why is Smith ready to be a breakout player? A player from years past provides the answer.
In 1999, after four seasons in the NFL, Zack Crockett joined the Raiders. Like Smith, Crockett was mostly used as a blocking fullback. Although he had quite a few more carries, Crockett had only one touchdown. Over the next five seasons (three with Gruden and two in the same offensive system), Crockett became one of the NFL’s most efficient goal-line backs. He piled up 32 TDs on just 629 yards rushing.
That is what being in the right system can do for a player. Smith will not be the primary ball carrier in Oakland — not even close. But expect to see Smith become a big part of the goal-line package. It’s hard to stop a 240-pound man running down hill behind one of the league‘s biggest offensive lines. Oakland fans loved Crockett, and Smith has the potential to bring back some of that smash-mouth style.
Marshawn Lynch fantasy owners might not like it, but look for Smith to rack up close to six touchdowns. He won’t get you many yards, but he’ll help the offense put up a few more points.
Who do you think will be the Raiders’ breakout players in 2018?
In addition to contributing to Silver and Black Today.com, Gutierrez also co-hosts the Silver and Black Today on CBS Sports Radio 1140-AM in Las Vegas every Sunday from 8-10am. He’s also the co-host of the new CBS Sports Radio 1140-AM show Sports Adrenaline Las Vegas, which can be heard from 8-10a on Saturdays.