The Raiders’ backfield: A committee, or the passing of the baton to a rookie?

The new regime in Las Vegas has made it clear that Josh Jacobs is not the default running back of choice. The Raiders recently declined the fifth-year option on Jacobs. They also traded up to get Georgia running back Zamir White in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Could this be the end of the line for Josh Jacobs with the Raiders? Or is he simply playing on a “prove it” deal in 2022? Either way, the days of Jacobs being the team’s pure No. 1 running back appear to be over.

The Raiders’ RBs: White Enters, And Is Jacobs Set to Exit?

Josh Jacobs Will See His Role Reduced

In the best-case scenario for Jacobs in Las Vegas, he sticks around as part of a committee. The other strong possibility is that Jacobs is gone after the 2022 campaign and White becomes the lead running back in 2023 – it will be interesting to see how prop bets stack up by then. General manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels come from a New England background where there was a consistent committee approach in the past.

The new Raiders brass appears intent on seeing how a committee works out this year and whether Jacobs should still be an integral part of it after the season. In 2020, Jacobs seemed like his production was ramping up, as he rushed for 1,065 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games. But last year, he dropped off to 872/9 in 15 games.

Jacobs has battled injuries in the first three seasons of his career and has never quite lived up to the billing of being drafted in the first round in 2019. The recent editions of the Raiders have featured skill position players that have not met their full expectations in Jacobs, Derek Carr, and Amari Cooper. The Raiders were able to unload the enigmatic Cooper. But considering the scarcity of top-level and even respectable quarterbacking in the NFL, it’s no surprise they are sticking with Carr.

Running backs, however, are much more disposable and interchangeable than quarterbacks in today’s offensive market. The Raiders seem to have no problem with letting Jacobs and Kenyan Drake walk away after the 2022 season while moving on to White and someone else as a possible pass-catching complement. The pressure is on Jacobs and Drake, while the Raiders’ brain trust has the luxury of seeing how it all plays out.

Jacobs will still want to get paid on the open market next season, whether it’s by the Raiders or someone else. If he shows he can effectively lead a committee this year, he could stay in Las Vegas or see if another team will give him a chance to top its running back depth chart in 2023. He also surely wants to prove his worth again this season. So, there’s a lot of motivation for Jacobs to play at his best levels in 2022, especially after the new leadership team sent him a message by drafting White.

Jacobs did catch 54 balls last year, and White is not much of a receiver. There is a possible scenario in which the two are splitting carries next season if Jacobs warms the hearts of Ziegler and McDaniels with a strong 2022 showing. However, Drake, the best receiver of the three, will be back this year after coming off a major ankle injury.

A Running Back Committee Can Serve The Raiders Well

The ideal situation for Ziegler and McDaniels is for Jacobs, Drake, and White to form a very impressive trio that features varying styles of play and keeps all of them fresh. Opponents would get worn down and Carr would benefit from strong support from the running backs.

But White is a real threat to become the team’s lead running back in 2023 if he provides more of a spark than the others this upcoming season. He is a tenacious runner who also has speed, and he can break tackles very well. White was not a heavy workload guy in college, but he is certainly capable of being the main ball carrier for the Raiders if needed.

We will see White start to cut into Jacobs’ reps this year. Don’t be fooled by a “fourth round” draft tag that would seem to mark White as more of a depth piece behind the veterans. Running backs command much less draft capital nowadays than they did in past years. A fourth-round RB is certainly capable of challenging for a starting job in today’s NFL, where that did not seem like the case in the NFL a decade ago. 

The Raiders don’t have to pay Jacobs significant money even if he has a good season in 2022. They can still let him go and might have no issue operating cheaply at the position. They can always draft someone else to team with White or look for a less expensive option than what Jacobs may ask for after this season. 

What Jacobs needs to do is draw inspiration from Rashaad Penny of the Seahawks. An oft-injured first-round pick in 2018, Penny headed into the 2021 campaign with an uncertain future as the Seahawks declined to pick up his option. Over the final six weeks of the season, Penny played like the best RB in the NFL. He could have potentially signed elsewhere but made his own choice to stay in Seattle. 

If Jacobs performs well enough in 2022, he may be able to have more control over his decision after the season. Along the way, the Raiders could feature either a strong duo of Jacobs and White or a viable committee approach that also includes Drake. If Jacobs and Drake struggle, then the Raiders know who can lead the position going forward. It will be a season of finding out answers at running back in Las Vegas. Ziegler and McDaniels have set the stage for a spirited and potentially productive competition for touches.

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*Top Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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