The mark of head coach Jon Gruden on the 2018 Oakland Raider’s roster is starting to come to fruition. The free agency frenzy has taken full-form around the NFL and the Raiders made an alarmingly big change at the wide receiver position.
Michael Crabtree was released to make way for the signing of former Green Bay Packers star, Jordy Nelson. With the move, the question is, what did the Silver and Black lose at the position and what did they gain?
Crabtree saw his career resurged as a Raider in very ironic fashion. The Raiders passed on Crabtree in the 2009 draft and shockingly selected speedster WR Darrius Heyward-Bey with pick No. 7. Heyward-Bey would never live up to the hype of his draft status and became a bust for Oakland and left the team after four underwhelming seasons.
Across the Bay, Crabtree would last six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and eventually hit free agency and was widely recognized as a controversial player. Crabtree had worn out his teammates and organization with a mix of verbalized antics and inconsistent production as the team faltered after as seeing some successful seasons in Super Bowl contention.
NFL teams league-wide didn’t want to entertain the services of Crabtree in 2015 yet the Raiders took a risk on a one-year contract laced with performance incentives. Crabtree instantly became an effective weapon for Derek Carr in his second season as the duo built an incredibly successful chemistry. Throughout Crabtree’s three seasons in Oakland, he was a stable target and found his best plays in the most thrilling moments of the game. Crabtree’s reputation for winning games with Carr is undoubtedly the most uneasy part about moving on from him. However, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end and the “Carr to Crabtree” era is over.
Why is there a change of scenery for Crabtree under a new regime?
In fairness, Crabtree leaving was almost inevitable after a down season and the endless locker room issues between the staff and players. Crabtree’s name was often suspected to be in the mix each time reports emerged about locker room issues and leadership. Between dropped passes and questionable effort, Crabtree’s season unraveled as the 2017 campaign did so as well.
One of the most controversial moments of the Raiders 2017 season was surrounding a rather selfish exchange between Crabtree and former Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib over his infamous gold chain. Crabtree unapologetically received a one-game suspension for the fight with Talib during a non-football play altercation. Right or wrong, it mattered and reflected upon his flair for controversy. Gruden saw a headache that came with the production of Crabtree and ultimately began to weigh his options. The release of veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson from the Green Bay Packers marked the beginning of the end for Crabtree. The Raiders wasted no time and from the looks of it, didn’t even consider trade options for him, and he was shown the door.
Raider Nation is set to welcome Jordy Nelson, a high-profile player that has made his mark as an extremely productive wide receiver while in Green Bay. It’s nearly impossible to credit Nelson’s successes without correlating it to playing with one of the leagues best quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers. Nelson has been one of the best red zone threats in the league, which bodes well to replace some of Crabtree’s positional success he had as Carr’s favorite target when in striking distance.
Nelson’s ability stems from the timing of his double-move route tree with Rodgers over the years and his instinctual prowess to get open for Rodgers when the play breaks down. Nelson has some Raider traits to him as he’s routinely burnt defenses for long pass plays, something historically the Raiders have always celebrated. Nelson isn’t revered for his forty-yard dash time but his game speed is proven to destroy defenses when he opens it up in space. It will be intriguing to see if Nelson continues his big plays downfield, although Gruden isn’t known to open up the verticality of the passing offense too often. The biggest reason to change that would be Gruden having a quarterback like Carr who has a strong arm capable of getting the ball downfield.
Gruden’s offense is about power run concepts, balanced with a west coast offense passing game. It’s yet to be seen how much Gruden changes his offense coming back into the NFL but I’m banking on it being predominately similar to his previous stints. The intermediate routes will be prevalent and this demands reliable receivers finding the holes in the defense and most importantly converting the completions. Nelson’s catch percentages are significantly higher than that of Crabtree’s and reliability speaks volumes. Nelson isn’t a one-trick pony either, he is particularly stellar in the blocking department as well. This is something that Gruden reveres for his power run scheme. The constant physical presence of blocking receivers in Gruden run scheme naturally presents great play-action opportunities for a polished route runner like Nelson to go over the top of the defense.
Nelson is an incredible complementary piece for Amari Cooper to develop next to. Nelson is widely known as a hard-working personality and team-first leader, this is of huge contrast to Crabtree. Gruden has a budding superstar in Cooper to polish and then a veteran savvy option in Nelson who has excellent hands and unquestionable leadership traits. From the start, Gruden has mentioned Cooper will be the focal point of the offense. Moving Cooper around as a slot option means Nelson’s Super Bowl championship pedigree creates a very trusting player for Carr to balance his targets with.
Ultimately the success of this move is dependent on the arm of Carr but nonetheless, it’s an exciting addition to see develop. Nelson will turn 33 during the season and undoubtedly the biggest concern is his mileage as well as the fact he’s coming off an injury.
A few factors to alleviate those concerns are Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie’s longtime stint in Green Bay on the scouting department overlapped with Nelson’s time there. McKenzie also brought in Nelson’s former wide receiver coach Edgar Bennett from Green Bay. That familiarity rounds out some knowledgeable intimacy about Nelson’s ability but more importantly, what could be left in the tank. Gruden loves his veteran players but he needs to know when to give up on them, if Nelson is still the player he’s been over his career, these next two seasons will be a massive success for all aspects of Raider Nation.