The Oakland Raiders began “Organized Team Activities” yesterday and a new excitement is in the air. The rebuilt team has reported to “voluntary” workouts with the exception of only two players. The Raiders have many new faces on the roster and maybe the most electrifying one belongs to Maurice Jones-Drew. His presence adds a huge jolt to the running back position and will spur new competition in the backfield. Raider Nation’s prayers seem to have been answered with an influx of veteran talent on the roster early in 2014.
All players except veteran linebacker Kevin Burnett and defensive tackle Antonio Smith (who was injured) reported to camp Tuesday and Coach Dennis Allen was pleased with the effort on day one. Much has been made about the Raiders new depth at running back and the players will surely fuel each other in their attempts at gaining the most playing time.
When asked about the running back battle between Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden Tuesday Allen made it clear he wants the players to fight for their roster spots saying, “I think they’re going to have healthy competition back there.”
Darren McFadden may be in the number one spot to start OTAs just due to familiarity with the team and staff but Jones-Drew is going to be ready to regain his pro bowl form in 2014.
McFadden reached an incentive lased deal in the off season for one-year, $1.65 million.In 2013, he again had an injury riddled season and only gained 379 yards for a 3.3 yard per carry average according to the Raiders team site. He also graded out at -9.8 overall on profootballfocus.com. Maybe with another former star running back chasing his tail in camp will finally be the fuel McFadden needs to play to his full potential. This looks to be his last chance at redemption in Oakland.
Jones-Drew struggled in 2013 after he missed the majority of his 2012 season. He played in 15 games but recorded his lowest yards per carry average of his career at 3.4. However, it is worth mentioning that he played behind a disgusting line. Not one player on the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive line recorded a positive overall or run blocking grade. The best run block grade coming in was 0 and the worst was an appalling -17.5 according to profootballfocus.com. From 2009-2011 Jones-Drew gained over 1,000 yards a season and was considered one of the best in the game. It will be interesting to see if he can regain his elite status in the NFL this year behind what should be a solid offensive line. He will be earning on average $2.5 million a year for the Silver and Black.
The highest paid player in the backfield will be the fifth year man Marcel Reece. For the money he is earning ($3.65 million a year according to spottrac.com) he has been completely underutilized. He went from 52 receptions in 2012 to 32 in 2013 according to the team site and only carried the ball 46 times. Based on Allen’s incessant talk about versatility one would think Reece would get more touches moving forward.
These three players combine to make an extremely formidable unit and can complement each other nicely if they all can stay healthy. The last three running backs pushing for playing time will be the legacy, rookie George Atkinson III, second year UCF speedster Latavius Murray and Kory Sheets out of Purdue via the CFL. Atkinson III has a small edge due to his ability as a kick returner but Murray and Sheets have a lot of motivation after being sidelined early in their pro careers.
The talent and versatility at running back for the Raiders this year is in the top five of the 32 team league and they must take advantage of that fact. Whether it is McFadden’s speed on the outside, Reece’s hands in the screen game or Jones-Drew ability to wear down a defense this unit could be magical. Allen knows what he has and seems to have planned it out perfectly saying Tuesday, “that was one of the things we looked at is trying to add pieces that complement each other. We feel good where we are at in the running back room.”
The front office and Raider Nation will just have to hope and pray that none of the pieces in the backfield break anytime soon.
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