Three years may not seem that long, but in NFL terms it can be an eternity. Perhaps no team is a better reminder of that than the Oakland Raiders.
The Patriots and Raiders meet Sunday for the first time since their October 2nd matchup in the fourth week of the 2011 season. While New England has been blessed with a steady ownership, head coach, and quarterback tandem stretching back to 2001, the Raiders have been in continual upheaval since the two teams last met. Owner/czar Al Davis died just six days after that showdown, leaving a power vacuum at the top of their hierarchy. On the following weekend, starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone in a game against the Browns. That led just two days later to Oakland trading a 2012 1st-round pick and a 2013 2nd-rounder for Carson Palmer, an average quarterback sitting out the year in a contract dispute, but one with whom head coach Hue Jackson was familiar. The Raiders finished the season 4-6 and missed the playoffs for the ninth straight campaign.
On January 5, 2012, the Raiders hired Green Bay’s director of player personnel, Reggie McKenzie. Five days later, he fired Jackson. Saddled with an aging roster, financial inflexibility, and a depleted set of draft picks (no first- or second-rounders in 2012), McKenzie spent his first two seasons cleaning house where he could. However, Oakland still carried an astounding $46M in dead money (37% of the salary cap) last season.
Not all of McKenzie’s decisions ‒ even those more under his control ‒ have worked out. The team’s 2012 third-rounder Tony Bergstrom has started just one game, and 2013 fourth-rounder Tyler Wilson was cut before his first season even started. But the dearth of young talent and the serious cap problems McKenzie inherited are by far the biggest factors in the Raiders’ seemingly perpetual state of disorder. His moves haven’t been wonderful, but no one could have built a contender by now with the hand he was dealt.
This ongoing chaos has spread to the players on the field as well. Talented young players (such as left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston) have left through free agency, the Raiders unable to meet their salary demands due to their cap issues. The ill-advised dispensing of draft picks ‒ in the Palmer trade, but also dealing a 2011 first-rounder for an aging Richard Seymour and using a 2011 supplemental pick on talented but very raw quarterback Terrelle Pryor (whose selection resulted in forfeiture of their third-round choice in 2012) ‒ left them without an influx of young reinforcements to fill the gaps. The team has resigned itself to filling holes with castoffs and undrafted free agents.
Perhaps no position epitomizes this state of affairs more than quarterback. Palmer remained the starting signal-caller in 2012, as the Raiders were handcuffed to his expensive contract. Yet getting free of that contract hardly resolved the team’s problems at the position. Pryor got a shot in 2013 but proved more a running threat (576 yards) than a capable passer (11 interceptions against only 7 touchdowns). Former Packers backup Matt Flynn got a start. Undrafted Matt McGloin from Penn State got a turn. Then in March, the Raiders traded a late-round pick for veteran Matt Schaub, who made the Pro Bowl in 2012 but suffered a meltdown last year, throwing five interceptions returned for touchdowns in four games during one stretch. Schaub failed to win the starting job this summer and is now backing up 2014 second-round pick Derek Carr.
How bad is it? Here’s a promotional ad Oakland ran in the offseason:
This is how the other half lives, Patriots fans. You should look in the mirror every day and think about how lucky you are. Keep that in mind as you read this preview of the Oakland offense. It might get a little dark.
Rookie quarterback Carr injects some youth into a backfield that otherwise was more impressive a few years ago. Darren McFadden, one of the few players who was here for the last contest between the teams, has been on a downward trend since 2010. Maurice Jones-Drew’s last good season was in 2011 and he’s now 29, an age when most running backs are retiring. The most intriguing player is fullback Marcel Reece, but he is also 29.
Quarterback – Derek Carr #4
Carr put up video game numbers at Fresno State, passing for over 5,000 yards with a 50/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, few draftniks took those numbers seriously because he compiled them in a spread offense that does not require the quarterback to make a lot of NFL-style throws and reads. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has tailored the offense to these limitations, with Carr primarily throwing out of shotgun sets or off of play-action. Carr struggles with protection schemes, so Oakland often leaves a running back in to help with the blitz. ESPN Stats and Info notes that Carr ranks a respectable 11th in the NFL in their QBR stat when facing four-man rushes, but against the blitz he drops to next-to-last. Despite this flaw, Carr does a remarkably good job of avoiding sacks. He’s only taken two in the first two contests, after taking just 11 in 670 dropbacks in 2013, the best rate in college football. He has a very quick release, though at times perhaps too quick, zipping the ball to receivers who aren’t open in order to avoid a sack. That tendency to unload the ball hastily when under pressure was on display in Week 1, as he delivered this pass right to a Jets defender:
For a young quarterback, he has good touch and anticipation on short routes, especially comeback routes and shallow crosses. His deeper throws are a little more suspect. Carr has good athletic ability ‒ he ran about the same at the Combine as Johnny Manziel (4.69 vs Manziel’s 4.68) and had the second-best vertical leap among quarterbacks. He showed off that athleticism on a 41-yard read-option carry against Houston last Sunday. The Patriots will have to watch for this, and the players responsible for containment will have to do a lot better job than Houston linebacker Brooks Reed did here.
Halfback – Darren McFadden #20
In 2010, McFadden ran for 1,157 yards and 7 touchdowns at an impressive 5.2 yards-per-carry clip, to which he added another 500 yards receiving. The former fourth overall pick was on pace to put up similar numbers again in 2011, when he suffered a Lisfranc injury and missed the final nine games. Since returning, he’s averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and fewer than 50 yards per game. It’s hard to imagine how he ever put up those big numbers because he stinks now. He still has decent straight-line speed, but his vision and agility are poor. Watch how he fails to spot the cutback lane here, continuing to string the play out to the sideline and losing three yards in the process:
As noted above, Oakland’s backs have been asked to stay in pass protection more this year and it hasn’t gone well for McFadden, who while possessing great size at 6’2” and 210 pounds, plays like a much smaller back and lacks either the ability or willingness to block effectively.
Halfback – Maurice Jones-Drew #21
Jones-Drew missed Oakland’s Week 2 contest and is currently listed as questionable. He had just 9 carries for 11 yards against the Jets in Week 1. After making first-team All-Pro in 2011, MJD missed 10 games in 2012 with a Lisfranc injury and then rushed for just 3.4 yards per carry last year. He was a terrific all-around back in his prime but it appears he’s nearing the end.
Halfback – Latavius Murray #28
Murray will get some action if Jones-Drew can’t play. At 6’2” and 223 pounds, he’s a big back that many projected as a fullback coming out of Central Florida. As the Raiders currently rank last in the NFL in rushing yards, perhaps he’ll get a shot at a larger role, though he only has one carry thus far this season
Fullback / Halfback / Tight End / Swiss Army Knife – Marcel Reece
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick offered high praise for Reece, a former wide receiver who’s shown skill at both running back (4.7 career yards-per-carry on 153 attempts) and receiver (141 career catches): “You put a big guy on him, he’s probably going to have a hard time matching up with Reece’s speed and quickness. Put a smaller guy on him, he might match up with his speed and quickness, but it would be hard to match up with his size. I’d say that’s a dilemma. Who do you have that has the same skill set as Reece?” Oakland’s coaching staff doesn’t appear to have the same high opinion, as he’s been on the field for just 40 of 113 offensive snaps and has only touched the ball 4 times. Reece has previously lined up just about everywhere, from halfback to fullback to H-back to tight end to receiver.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The Oakland receivers have some impressive physical attributes but that’s not all it takes to be a great receiver. See below:
Blooper reels aside, between Denarius Moore, Rod Streater, and the above-pictured James Jones, the Raiders may not have a true #1 receiver, but they have three players that can hurt a defense that doesn’t have the cornerback depth to match up. Fortunately for the Patriots they are deep at corner, even if Alfonzo Dennard is hurt again, and have the matchup edge over this group.
In passing situations, the Raiders like to spread the field with three or four receivers, giving Carr fairly straightforward reads similar to his college experience. As noted above, they often keep backs in for additional blocking help, so it’s common to see one of the receivers run a shallow drag as an outlet. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots drop a defensive lineman into coverage at times to disrupt these drags and confuse Carr.
Wide Receiver – Denarius Moore #17
Moore is the longest-tenured of the Raiders’ wideouts, having been on the squad since 2011. This year, he’s leading all the team’s skill-position players in snaps played but has just 5 catches for 37 yards. He was used as a deep threat a lot early in his career, with more than 40% of his targets deep in 2011 and 2012, but he’s been used more conventionally since. Andy Benoit noted that, “Moore could not get any separation outside vs. iffy Jets CB’s,” ‒ not a good sign for a guy facing Darrelle Revis and company.
Wide Receiver – Rod Streater #80
In 2013 Streater led the Raiders in targets (100), receptions (60), and receiving yards (888) while adding 4 touchdowns. According to ProFootballFocus.com he’s served as the primary slot receiver for Oakland, spending 47% of his time inside last year and 65% so far in 2014. At 6’2” he’s a large target and a mismatch for the typically smaller nickel corners he is likely to face. Streater had an MRI earlier this week and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday due to a hip flexor injury suffered against Houston.
Wide Receiver – James Jones #89
This 30-year-old, a third or fourth wide receiving option in Green Bay the past few seasons, has become the go-to guy for Oakland so far in 2014, leading the Raiders in targets (17), catches (12), yards (146), and touchdowns (2). The raw numbers overstate his impact, as he has 4 catches for 51 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter of games where Oakland was already out of contention. Belichick noted Jones’ penchant for “acrobatic-type catches” and complimented his “great timing, leaping ability and big hands.” You can see it in the clip above; he makes an impressive contested catch before fumbling twice in what could be the worst individual effort in the NFL so far this year.
Wide Receiver – Vincent Brown
Not to be confused with ex-Patriot Vincent “The Undertaker” Brown, this ex-Charger was a disappointment as a third-round pick, tallying just 60 catches and 801 yards in three injury-plagued seasons. San Diego waived Brown in the preseason after yet another injury and the Raiders just picked him up this week. He is likely insurance in case Streater can’t go.
Wide Receiver – Andre Holmes #18
Holmes should be familiar to the Patriots’ coaching staff, as he spent some time on the practice squad towards the end of the 2012-2013 season before being released in the offseason. At 6’4” he’s got a huge frame. He played only two snaps against the Jets before getting more looks last week, so, like Brown, his playing time is likely linked to Streater’s injury status.
Tight End – Mychal Rivera #81
Rivera has a small build for a tight end at 6’3” and 245 pounds, attributes similar to those of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. However, he lacks Hernandez’ agility and explosiveness and has only once exceeded 50 receiving yards in a game. Despite his small size, the Raiders most often set Rivera up in-line rather than splitting him out in the slot. He’s flashed good hands this year but PFF tracked him with 5 drops in 2013.
Tight End – Brian Leonhardt #87
The second-year player out of Bemidji State is a big (6’5”, 255 pounds) and slow (5.02 40) blocking tight end.
The Raiders overhauled this unit in the offseason, bringing in three new starters and moving Khalif Barnes from left guard to right tackle. Veldheer, their best lineman, signed a 5-year, $35 MM contract with Arizona. Tony Pashos and Mike Brisiel are currently out of the league. In to replace them are hulking rookie guard Gabe Jackson, former Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn, and ex-Jet Austin Howard, who shifts to right guard after playing right tackle in New York. Stefen Wisniewski, an above-average center, is their lone holdover.
However, the biggest offensive-line-related story in the offseason was a player they didn’t sign – Rams guard/tackle Rodger Saffold. Oakland inked the 26-year-old to a 5-year, $42.5 MM contract to widespread mockery, only to rescind the contract after a failed physical. It was a bizarre saga from start to finish.
Belichick thinks the new-look line is classic Raiders, saying “Overall, they’re big. I don’t know what their offensive line, I don’t even know what they list them at, but just looking at them, they have to average 340 [pounds]. They’re huge. It looks like the Raiders. Maybe they look bigger in those black uniforms, I don’t know.”
Left Tackle – Donald Penn #72
The 31-year-old Penn showed flashes of talent in his seven years in Tampa Bay, making the 2011 Pro Bowl, but struggles with consistency. According to Bleacher Report, he allowed the second-most sacks of any left tackle in 2013 with 11. He’s already had his struggles pass blocking this year as well.
Left Guard – Gabe Jackson #66
MMQB writer Andy Benoit gushed over Jackson’s play in a recent column, noting his “tremendous strength” and saying he “battled the NFL’s most destructive defensive force [J.J. Watt] to a draw.” The rookie third-round pick tipped the scales at 336 pounds at the Combine in February, making him the heaviest offensive lineman there. He’s stout at the point of attack both protecting Carr and clearing holes for the backs, but he’s also athletic for his size. The Raiders frequently have him pull on running plays.
Center – Stefen Wisniewski #61
2014 is his fourth year as a starter, but Wisniewski is still just 25. The former Nittany Lion is a solid player and can hold up even when a nose tackle lines up directly over him. He sometimes has trouble blocking linebackers at the second level, as they can beat him with quickness.
Right Guard – Austin Howard #77
At 6’7” and 330 pounds, Howard certainly fits Belichick’s characterization of “huge.” The 27-year-old played tackle with the Jets but the Raiders have bumped him inside. It’s a better fit, as Howard is a decent run blocker who can struggle in pass protection.
Right Tackle – Khalif Barnes #69
The 32-year-old Barnes has been with the Raiders since 2009, making him this line’s longest-tenured member. Barnes is also versatile, now playing his third different position up front in the past two seasons; he started last year at left tackle before shifting inside to left guard when Veldheer returned from injury. Barnes can pass block adequately but lacks the physical tools to run block. He’s not strong enough to generate push, so he tries to compensate by getting angles and grappling. This leads to holding penalties (5th-most in the NFL in 2013) and some embarrassing whiffs:
Tackle – Menelik Watson #71
Last year’s second-round pick, this native of England is a terrific raw athlete but didn’t show enough in the preseason to beat out veterans Howard and Barnes. Watson is already 25 despite his football inexperience (originally a college basketball recruit, he first played on the gridiron in 2011), so he will have to show growth soon to avoid being a bust. He occasionally plays as a blocking tight end.
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