Projecting Roles of the Raiders Backfield

Who Will Be The Raiders RB of the future?

The Raiders made some waves in free agency this 2021 offseason, signing Arizona Cardinals’ running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million dollar deal to join the backfield in Las Vegas. 

On the surface, not the craziest signing in the universe. Drake was perhaps the biggest name among the free-agent running backs in 2021, and coming off of two seasons as the Cardinals starter in an air raid offense, the star player found a more running-oriented team in the Raiders. Las Vegas got a quality player, Drake got an offense that likes to run more. 

But what would otherwise be a perfect fit left a few people scratching their heads, as just two seasons ago, the Raiders used a first-round pick to draft Josh Jacobs, the former Alabama running back who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, and has ran for 2,215 yards in his 28 game career. 

Now, Las Vegas has two running backs with starting potential, and a couple more on the roster already who could compete for reps in the offense. The question now becomes, how will the Las Vegas Raiders balance their crowded running back room, and how should they balance out their crowded running back room?

I’m so glad you asked.

Josh Jacobs

Maybe Josh Jacobs disappointed in his second season, relative to impossible expectations. Maybe his 3.9 yards per carry, good for just 43rd in the league, or his 13 games held under 100 rushing yards, despite being third in the league in carries, have Raiders’ coaches a bit worried about the former first-rounder’s potential. And maybe that’s why Las Vegas felt the need to sign Kenyan Drake to a multi-year deal.

But make no mistake about it, the feature running back position is still Jacobs’ to lose.

Relative to the league average, Jacobs’ efficiency on the ground might have struggled, but the Raiders’ offense as a whole thrived while operating through him. Even while their high-volume back failed to reach over four yards a carry, Las Vegas still leaned on him all the way to a top ten scoring offense, all while Jacobs faced eight-man boxes on over 25% of his carries

And even if efficiency numbers weren’t in Jacobs’ favor, the raw numbers were. Jacobs was one of just nine players in 2020 to reach over 1,000 yards on the ground, and finished tied for fifth in the league in rushing touchdowns with 12. There should be two main takeaways from this.

Number one: Analytics nerds be damned, Jacobs is still a talented player, and a valuable asset to the Raiders’ offensive operation. Not the efficiency monster that the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert is, or the king of 100-yard games like the Titans’ Derrick Henry, but very few are. Instead, Jacobs is a well-rounded talent, capable of shouldering a heavy load in the Las Vegas offense.

Number two: You don’t give a guy the third most carries in the league if you’re looking to replace him. Kenyan Drake is a running back capable of starting in the NFL, but the Raiders’ offense was great in 2020, borderline elite, and Jacobs was the engine behind that offense. Drake will have a significant role in Las Vegas, but Jacobs should still be the go-to guy.

Kenyan Drake

Think ‘Super-Charged Cleveland Browns,’ an offense where Nick Chubb is the star at running back, but Kareem Hunt still saw the field for 52% of the team’s snaps. Or rather, think ‘NCAA 14 Dynasty Mode on freshman difficulty’ where after a few seasons, you’ve won three straight national championships, sign nothing but five-star recruits, and have two 95+ overall players at running back for no other reason than “eh, why not.” That’s what the Raiders’ offense is with Kenyan Drake joining Josh Jacobs.

Or at least, that should be the vision of what the offense could be with those two players in the backfield. Drake has his own faults as a player, just like Jacobs. And even while the two are talented, two nice seasons doesn’t have Jacobs on the same career trajectory as Nick Chubb, and one surprisingly nice half-season in Arizona back in 2019 doesn’t have Drake looking like Kareem Hunt.

But just as both these running backs come with their own set of issues, both are still skilled players at the position. For Drake, his true talent stands as being a multi-purpose threat. In two of Drake’s five NFL seasons, he’s caught more than 50 passes, and has recently blossomed into a skilled running back as well, breaking 800 yards on the ground in each of his last two seasons.

But in the Raiders’ offense, one that leaned heavily on the efforts of Josh Jacobs in 2020, Drake’s role in Las Vegas might be limited to shining in just one of those skillsets. Jacobs can be the threat on the ground, while Drake possesses a bit more potential as a receiver for the Raiders. Between the two, Jacobs should project early as the early-down back, while Drake could shine as a star third-down threat.

The Field

If Kenyan Drake is the Captain America of the Las Vegas Raiders’ backfield, and Josh Jacobs is the Iron Man, then the other names lining the Raiders’ roster, names like Theo Riddick, Jalen Richard, and potentially even a late-round rookie, are the Hawkeye of the bunch. Not the fan-favorites, not the heaviest hitters, but important in their own right, enough to carve out a role in Vegas, even with a crowded running back room.

Even if Riddick and Richard aren’t the headline-grabbing names that the Raiders’ new two-headed monster is, there should still be a path to them seeing the field on a Las Vegas offense that ran the ball the 11th most in the NFL, and targeted their running backs on 95 passing plays. 

Maybe the Raiders’ offense isn’t the most reliant on the ground game, but they’re still built in a way that leans on their running back group, and seem to be treading even more in that direction with the free-agency acquisition of Drake. They also might not target their running backs in the same way that the Saints do with Alvin Kamara, or the Panthers do with Christian McCaffery, but they still feature their ball-carriers in the passing game enough to believe that between ground duties and pass-catching responsibilities, Drake and Jacobs won’t be able to do it all on their own.

And that’s where the field comes in. Not to start, or to be a high-volume bench presence, but to step in situationally to take the pressure off the two stars. Both Richard and Riddick have been exceptional receiving running backs in their pro careers, with Richard recording over 600 receiving yards from the backfield in 2018, and Riddick once breaking 80 catches with just one start to his name in 2015 with the Lions. They’re the exact type of role players that a running back-heavy offense like the one constructed by Jon Gruden needs to thrive.

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