Taking a look back …
Of all the positional groups heading into the Oakland Raiders 2017 season, it’s hard to ignore the potential of the stable of running backs. This was an unproven group prior to the 2016 season with former Raider Latavius Murray being their only experienced back at the time. That year, Murray faced minimal competition before he earned the starting role. The battles for the depth was settled among added 5th round draft pick DeAndre Washington, (Legendary Raider George Atkinson’s son) George Atkinson III and an unknown UDFA in Jalen Richard. Despite some highlight reel moments from Atkinson III, the retention of promising camp back Jalen Richard sealed Atkinson’s tenure with the Raiders.
The fullback position, which was unquestioned to be led my Marcel Reece gave way to Jamize Olawale. Reece served a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season and was cut the first day he was eligible to return, the staff seemingly had seen a cheaper and younger productive option in Olawale.
Off Season Changes
One year later, The Raiders refused to re-sign Latavius Murray and lost him in free agency to the Minnesota Vikings. Judging by the modest contract he took, the staff clearly didn’t believe in his game in spite of some successful production on the field and it being publically made that he was best friends with Derek Carr. After losing their starting running back, a lot of media clamor suggested the Raiders might add a back in the first or second round, slighting the successful rookie campaigns of duo Richard and Washington in the process. Then came the rumblings of hometown hero Marshawn Lynch aka “BEASTMODE;” The media ran with the story as it dominated sports headlines while Lynch was still settling his contractual obligation with the Seattle Seahawks. After speculation finished, Lynch eventually signed with The Oakland Raiders around the time of the NFL Draft. The Raiders added a 7th round running back Elijah Hood afterward.
Note: I’ll be dropping some former Raider comparison’s to each players game as I analyze each back, perhaps a bit of nostalgia to be served as we await the 2017 season.
The Depth Chart
Despite the Raiders offense favoring Derek Carr under shotgun much of last season due to his passing strengths, playing from behind late in games and his thumb injury, this might change a bit in the 2017 season. For now, Lynch tops the depth chart for the starting running back. The hefty offensive line, in conjunction with stellar blocking tight end Lee Smith, will be ready to pound on opposing teams defensives while setting up Carr’s best play action personnel yet. Lynch is the an amazing tone-setting pace back, with relentless ability to suck in an opposing defense as make them prone to the big play.
Lynch will be used in single back formations as well as line behind athletic blocking fullback Jamize Olawale. Lynch has historically been one the best physical runners after contact in NFL history, which gives the offense an edge to pound away at teams with leads late in games rather than differing to a defense still trying to formulate its identity. Now, who wouldn’t suspect Marshawn becomes the short yardage back specialist? What about a goal-line carry from the 1-yard line? The Raiders needed an answer to short yardage running situations and Lynch gives them one of the best. Lynch’s physical style is reminiscent of former Raider Zack Crockett. Crockett was a bigger back, but Lynch packs the same punishing drive into the teeth of the defense.
Former 2016 starter Latavius Murray struggled with running high and long-legged at times. That, coupled with his lack of running lane vision makes it easy to see he left a lot of yards on the field. Even then, he notched 12 rushing touchdowns as he benefited from the prolific offense around him. This arguably is Marshawn’s best offensive line of his career and it is also the best passing offense he’s been part of. If Lynch is any sliver of the player he was pre-retirement, his productivity could be astronomical, even in a running back role that might be limited due to what the depth behind him offers in contrast to his own game.
Jalen Richard aka “The Rocket” had an extremely impressive UDFA rookie campaign. He forced the league to take notice back in week one of the 2016 season as he took a 75 yard carry up the middle of the New Orleans Saints defense to the end zone, changing the complete momentum of the come from behind victory on the road. Richard profiles as the trending prototypical NFL scat back: 5’7 and 207 lbs with blinding fast feet and route running finesse out the backfield as a pass catcher. Richard seamlessly fit into the Raiders offense averaging 5.9 yards per carry and a catch rate of 74.4%, all while contributing 9.0 yards a punt return to the special teams. The larger physical linebackers were challenged to trace down Jalen with his ability to shift behind blockers finding running lanes.
Richard excels at being low to the ground and a speedy threat touching the ball in any facet of the game. I’d project him to have productive touches intermixing among the offense, standing alongside Carr in the shotgun mostly as a third down back or in no-huddle situations. A screen pass game hasn’t shown to be promising in this offense, but Jalen can make front seven players miss if their off balance downhill; I’d expect a screen game scheme to develop for him.
Until we see the full intentions of Raiders first-time Offensive Coordinator Todd Downing when it comes to balancing Lynch’s workload, it’s hard to know how much Jalen’s statistical performance will be hindered. He could be potentially speaking as productive as former Raider Charlie Garner was in the 2002 Super Bowl season, with over 900 rushing and 900 receiving in the same season. Ultimately for him to be that prolific in this offense, it would mean Lynch gets his carries monitored for contractual incentives and body preservation for a playoff run in the AFC.
Remember Raiders wide receiver, Brice Butler? The 2016 5th round pick for DeAndre Washington came way from a draft-day player trade and pick swap with The Dallas Cowboys that included Butler. Washington looks to be a steal creating a slashing duo with Richard as he stands only an inch taller than Jalen at 5’8. The rookie had very similar production to fellow rookie teammate Jalen Richard. Similarly, Washington averaged 5.4 per carry in 2016 and had a 73.9% catch rate out the backfield. He showed explosive shiftiness, making defenders miss once he hit the second level while showing the power to shed arm tackles.
DeAndre started two of the fourteen games he dressed for in 2016 and at the same time, he built some great experience on the field. In a game remembered by the loss of Derek Carr to injury, many forget how great Washington was in week 16 vs The Indianapolis Colts. He ended up getting 12 carries for 99 yards averaging 8.3 a rush, with two touchdowns as well as one catch for 18 yards. During that game I thought I was watching former Raider Napoleon Kaufman, another small framed running back that ran downfield with a purpose and an attitude.
Elijah Hood was a heavily recruited four-star running back out of high school. Hood was rated the No. 7 overall running back in his 2014 class and the No. 47 overall player in ESPN’s top 300 rankings. He uncommitted from Notre Dame and ended up choosing North Carolina. He built his NFL resume in his sophomore year, rushing for 1463 yards and averaging a whopping 6.7 per carry and 17 touchdowns. The Raiders used a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft on Elijah, adding him to a loaded & proven backfield. Intimidated, I think not? Hood has gleamed at the opportunity to learn from Marshawn Lynch as Hood claimed to model his own game after him.
Elijah Hood is a broad, heavy back at 5’11 and 232 lbs, making him nearly the heaviest back on the roster with the exception being Jamize Olawale, who is listed at 235 lbs. The staff might make a case for flirting with some fullback concepts to give Hood a more realistic shot and value at retention on the 53 roster in case Olawale suffers an injury. If you watch Elijah, he runs shoulder heavy in his posture, much like former Raider Tyronne Wheatley who was very similar in size, but with quick timely strides in space. Hood is a bit of a throwback stylistically, often times initiating the contact with the defender first with his shoulders and spinning for upfield movement. Elijah doesn’t appear to be the fastest burner in space and seems to need to build up his speed with more room than others.
What I really enjoy is his great patience with his blockers and he’s always using his off hand very well to shed tackles. Lastly and maybe the most impressive statistic I’ve seen, not a single fumble in his college career in his 430 rushing attempts and it is important to point out that ball security goes a long way in the NFL. At worst, Elijah Hood is stashed on the Raiders practice squad, awaiting his call.
Jamize projects to be the physical lead blocker for a talented crop of running backs behind an elite offensive line. I’m not sure what dictates his snap count, but Olawale will have to increase his special teams’ value opportunities being that his offensive use figures to be situational with all the weapons and talent around.
If Lynch takes the bulk of the carries, it may not require much Olawale in front of him as Marshawn has been very good in single back sets in his career. That could equal double tight end sets or perhaps a sixth offensive lineman inserting the game like how Denver Kirkland was used in 2016. Jamize had a career moment last year when he was the forgotten man vs The Houston Texans in Mexico City; he found space behind the linebackers for a 75-yard touchdown reception and showed some versatility shades of former Raider Marcel Reece whom he replaced.
Reggie McKenzie’s Way
If you’re paying attention to Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, you’ve seen his belief in finding capable running back value in later rounds:
Latavius Murray – 6th Round 2013
DeAndre Washingon – 5th Round 2016
Jalen Richard – UDFA 2016
Elijah Hood – 7th Round 2017
McKenzie’s free agent backfield acquisitions prior to Marshawn Lynch might startle you. Names like Maurice Jones-Drew, Roy Helu Jr, and Trent Richardson were awful misses in comparison to the current roster: The pieces are finally in elite standing for both the now and the future. It’s time to sit back and watch the offensive line pave the way as they run away with it.