Remember Antonio Brown? Remember when the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders acquired arguably the best receiver in football for a third-round pick and then signed him to a big extension?
Imagine how different this article would have been had he not gone absolutely postal on anything and everything. Instead, the Raiders were left with a bunch of skill position guys punching up in their weight class and an offense that was overall fairly average.
Having reviewed the state of the quarterback position earlier this week, we now turn to the backfield, the receivers and the tight ends.
Under contract: Tyrell Williams (WR), Zay Jones (WR), Hunter Renfrow (WR), Marcell Ateman (WR), Darren Waller (TE), Derek Carrier (TE), Foster Moreau (TE), Josh Jacobs (RB), Jalen Richard (RB), Alec Ingold (FB)
Free agents: Dwayne Harris, Keelan Doss (ERFA), Isaiah Crowell, Rod Smith, DeAndre Washington, Eric Tomlinson
The 2019 season was a fascinating one for this group, not only because of the Brown drama but also because of the potential this group displayed. Not only did Jacobs emerge as an elite running back in this league, but Waller proved himself to be one of the top tight ends as well. Add in the breakouts of rookies like Renfrow, Moreau and Ingold, and it really does appear as if the Raiders have the makings of something special.
All that’s missing? One more piece.
How good was Jacobs as a rookie? Despite playing in just 13 games and logging the 13th-most carries in the league, he finished seventh in rushing yards while setting a rookie record in forcing 69 missed tackles — the most ever by a rookie. He also was the first running back in the NFL to have an elusive rating over 100 since 2006. (Still trying to figure out how this didn’t earn him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year…)
Beyond Jacobs, the Raiders have already re-signed Richard, who was a dynamic weapon for the team on third downs — presenting himself as almost unguardable against linebackers. While he doesn’t ever project as an every-down back, he should continue to be more than serviceable as a change-of-pace guy.
The third piece sticking around in the backfield is Ingold, who ingratiated himself to fans with viral blocks like this one. Knowing he has a coach who loves old-school football, and especially now that he’s best friends with Jacobs, Ingold should be a fixture in Las Vegas for years to come.
With these three guys set in stone heading into 2020, I still think there’s room for one more running back to make the team. Last year the Raiders kept trying to find a bigger back to spell Jacobs when needed, so don’t be surprised to see the Raiders grab one in free agency or late in the draft if they see someone they like.
The headliner of the group is Williams, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal a year ago — interestingly enough, the story goes that part of the reason he wanted to come to Oakland was the prospect of playing with Antonio Brown. There were questions about whether Williams would be back at that number after a disappointing first season, but those were put to bed a few weeks ago when the Raiders allowed his 2020 base salary to become guaranteed. Williams finished last season with 42 catches for 651 yards and six touchdowns while battling through injuries.
Besides Williams, the only other guy you can confidently say will feature prominently next year is Renfrow — the fifth-round pick from Clemson was outstanding as a rookie, posting 49 catches for 605 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games.
Beyond those two are a bunch of guys who figure to be battling it out for roster spots. The Raiders traded a fifth-round pick for Jones last season, but he never really got things together in Oakland — could that change with a full offseason in Gruden’s system?
What about youngsters like Doss and Ateman? Neither guy has done anything to prove they are must-haves on an NFL roster, but there’s always hope that they can make the jump with another year under their belt.
Here’s a hot take: is there a better tight end room in all of football? I’m not saying Waller is better than Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but can you name the guys who play behind them? (In Kansas City it’s Blake Bell and Deon Yelder, in San Francisco it’s Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo — so guessing the answer there was ‘no’).
By now you’ve probably heard the miraculous story of Waller — the one that (so far) doesn’t have the ending that so many have come to expect. Instead of relapsing, Waller broke out this season with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers placed him second in both catches and yards behind only Kelce — and that’s despite Waller being the only real weapon on his team for most of the season.
But it wasn’t just Waller that impressed. Moreau had the rap coming out of college that he was more of a blocker than a pass-catcher — in part because he never posted more than 24 catches or 280 yards in any season at LSU. As a rookie? He posted 21 catches for 174 yards and five touchdowns — despite playing a position that is often the toughest for rookies to put up.
Last on the depth chart is Carrier — who represents a really solid third option as a guy who would probably see a lot more of the field in other places. He finished last season with 13 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. He also added one carry for 27 yards (just to give you a sense of his athleticism).
As you read through the list, if you didn’t know what was missing you might think more highly of this group than you should. An elite running back? An elite tight end? A pair of receivers over 600 yards? Solid depth at running back and tight end? What’s not to like?
Well, a No. 1 guy. Imagine what this group would look like with a bonafide star out wide. I believe that where dudes slot in really matter, meaning that if you ask a No. 2 receiver to become a No. 1, it throws everything else out of whack.
Williams is a No. 2 receiver — and a good one at that. Renfrow is a No. 3 guy — and a good one at that. But asking those guys to bump up a level is a serious problem — especially without an elite quarterback under center.
If the Raiders can add a stud to this group, while Jacobs and Waller both continue to progress, this offense will suddenly become a nightmare for opposing coaches.