Tale of the tailbacks: Pecking order at onset of 2022 campaign may not be the hierarchy when season closes

Josh Jacobs the bell cow back with Keyan Drake, Brandon Bolden, and Zamir White flanking him as the backup/specialist running backs. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Such is the luxury of the Las Vegas Raiders right now.

While the team is knee-deep in 90-man roster territory at the early stages of the offseason, the Silver and Black are carrying six total running backs. Missing from that initial list is veteran Ameer Abdullah and rookie Brittain Brown. The group will surely be whittled down as the offseason progresses. But in between now and the stages of cutdown the Raiders and every other NFL team will go through, there’s going to be some much-needed competition.

“It’s very competitive, but as a group of men and group of backs who have been in systems where there is a bunch of backs, I mean, with Josh (Jacobs), Kenyan (Drake), me, Ameer (Abdullah), Z (Zamir White) and Brit (Brittain Brown), there’s been a group of backs with everybody,” Bolden, the elder statesman of the group, said during his post mandatory camp press conference this past week. “As far as for me, and I’m telling them, I’m here to make you better and you’re here to make me better, and we’re going to push each other to get better. And that’s just kind of how we’ve been going about things.” 

“We cheer each other on when we’re in there. We coach each other up when we come off the field. It’s beginning to look like something nice.”

What do the Raiders envision for Josh Jacobs?

For the past three seasons, Jacobs served as the lead man in the running back room. His 28 career touchdowns in 43 games suggest he’s apt for that role. But his body tends to tell a different tale. Frankly, it can be wishy-washy due to injury. That’s not Jacobs’ fault, however. With not only the amount of contact NFL running backs sustain but also Jacobs’ power-based running style, dings and nicks come with the territory.

That had to weigh heavily on the Raiders’ brain trust of general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels declining Jacobs’ fifth-year option, foreshadowing the Alabama-product’s stay in Silver and Black likely won’t extend past the 2022 campaign. Ditto for fellow Crimson, which harkens back to that “something nice” Bolden alluded to. It could be something familiar to Bolden and McDaniels, which is running back-by-committee.

Spreading the wealth of carries and snaps will not only help preserve the physical fitness of the Raiders’ running back room, but it’ll also give defenses that much more to prepare for and defend. Jacobs can continue to be a low-center-of-gravity bowling ball, while Drake is a speed/receiving back, Bolden has similar hands with added pass blocking chops, and White is a fresh young rookie with equal parts power and speed.

“You know, the young man is here. He’s learning a new playbook, a new environment,” Raiders running back coach Kennedy Polamalu said of White. “So, he’s here. Determined. You know, we like the way, his physicality on film. And we had the opportunity to bring him here on our 30 visit and got to know him. And I think that really helped, but he’s a solid young man, humble, hard worker, and fits the room well.”

What do others think of Jacobs?

Polamalu, who added he’s impressed with Jacobs too due to the tailback’s work ethic and unselfishness, noted it’s too early in the offseason to put labels or identify specific tasks — like a receiver out of the backfield — on his running backs. 

“I don’t know. We’re just installing right now. And, you know, this is OTAs, there’s no real contact. So, I can’t tell you,” Polamalu said. “We’re just working and hopefully that we are available for them to make some plays for our quarterback.”

Still, it’s curious the Raiders drafted White in the fourth round this past NFL Draft, especially with Jacobs and Drake already in tow and Bolden and Abdullah signed in March. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising considering McDaniels and Ziegler come from the New England Patriots, where a glut of running backs, all relatively cheap and not big-ticket items, is the norm. White, dubbed Zeus, does possess a similar low center of gravity and is both hard to tackle and knock off his feet like Jacobs. And, despite a pair of ACL injuries, White has home run speed Jacobs doesn’t offer. So, it’s valid to postulate that Zeus will carry the rock this year. Because you need to see if he’s able to be part of a rotation and flourish.

How the usage of running backs starts at the onset of the 2022 campaign and how the hierarchy of the group is at the end of the year bears watching. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t end the way it began.

Las Vegas has a new fullback in Jakob Johnson but what will be his role?

Oh, there’s one more thing: There’s one person in the Raiders’ backfield, however, whose role is clearly identified and won’t fluctuate as the season goes on, and that’s Jakob Johnson.

The Raiders felt more than comfortable letting Alec Ingold go in unrestricted free agency to snag the fullback from the Patriots. Johnson is bigger at six-foot-three and 255 pounds, which serves him well as he paves the way through traffic and the muck that’s the line of scrimmage for running backs. He did it well in New England, and McDaniels and Ziegler didn’t hesitate to take him along to the desert.

“He’s a grinder, man. He’s a self-made football player. He comes to work every day, takes great care of his body. He’s a tough guy. He’s really a tough player, good teammate, unselfish, willing to do anything you ask him to do,” McDaniels glowingly said of Johnson. “He’ll block, he’ll line up outside of the backfield. He’ll play in a punt team. He does a lot of stuff for your football team, and he adds a lot of value and toughness to it. Jakob knows what his role is. He embraces it every day and he’s an unselfish teammate. I just really enjoy being around him. A lot of what Jakob does rubs off on a lot of people, and I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

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*Top Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

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