If you’ve missed seeing the orcish snarl of Jon Gruden on NFL sidelines, then you should be pretty stoked about the 2018 Oakland Raiders.
Gruden returns to coaching after serving as a color analyst for ESPN for nine years, during which time he celebrated grinding and popularized the word sequence “spider two Y banana.” He’s an entertaining dude and we’re lucky to have him in our football lives. But will his second coaching stint with the Raiders be as successful as his first? Well, that’s the 10-year, $100 million question.
Under Gruden, the Raiders produced a .594 winning percentage from 1998 to 2001, winning a pair of division titles and going 2-2 in the playoffs. Al Davis traded his head coach to Tampa Bay following the 2001 season for draft picks and cash, then Gruden’s Bucs demolished Oakland in the Super Bowl. It was a wild ride. Nobody doubted that Gruden was a terrific and tireless head coach. His offenses relied on West Coast concepts and principles, but different Gruden teams won in different ways. He could deliver a league-leading rushing offense one season and an elite passing attack the next; he led teams that relied on dominant defenses and teams that won in spite of defensive shortcomings.
All things considered, Gruden had an excellent coaching career. And then it ended. And now it’s reanimated. This can’t possibly be a bad thing for the NFL.
Gruden is apparently an analytics denier, which is both weird and disappointing. But anecdotal evidence suggests his legendary dedication to film study hasn’t changed, and it sounds as if players are buying whatever he’s selling.
“[Gruden] really makes you like football again,” said tight end Jared Cook. So that’s good news.
Oakland haters will treat Gruden as if he’s been trapped in ice for the past decade, entirely out of touch with a fast-evolving game. But it’s not crazy to imagine that he’s taken full advantage of ESPN’s unfettered access to coaches, players and film. At 54, he’s hardly a relic. His new offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, spent last season under Sean McVay as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach, helping transform Jared Goff into a Pro Bowler. Don’t assume Gruden is bringing a 2003 playbook to a 2018 training camp. At the very least, the Raiders should be a fun watch in the year ahead.
For fantasy purposes, however, this team is something less than loaded. Oakland offers a few respectable supporting players, but none place among the top-16 at any position in the Yahoo consensus fantasy ranks. Thus, the Raiders are stuck at No. 28 in this ridiculous index.
Let’s review the key fantasy assets in Oakland, beginning with the the team’s good-not-great QB…
• Derek Carr deserves all kinds of credit for playing through a significant back injury last season, missing just one game after initial reports suggested he could be sidelined for over a month. He’s tough, no doubt. His regression last year was very likely related to the injury. But he’s also a guy who’s never averaged better than 7.0 Y/A in any season (6.8 last year) and he hasn’t yet reached the 4000-yard plateau. Carr now finds himself at the controls of a presumably horizontal passing attack, working with an unspectacular receiving corps. If Carr’s ADP holds at 102.3 (QB13), there’s almost no chance I’ll land him anywhere.
• Amari Cooper was a mess last season, catching only half of his 96 targets, dropping 10 balls and gaining just 680 yards. He scored almost one-third of his total PPR fantasy points in a single game (11-210-2 vs. KC), but was otherwise quiet, a season-wrecker for fantasy owners. Cooper does have a pair of 1000-yard campaigns on his resume, however, so we can’t simply dismiss him. He’s in line for 120-plus targets; Gruden has compared him to a young Tim Brown. It’s also worth noting that Cooper is still a developing player, only six months older than rookie Calvin Ridley. It’s easy to build a case for Cooper as a bounce-back candidate, but we’re drafting him as if he’s a sure thing (WR16, ADP 39.9). That’s nuts.
• Jordy Nelson became a priority for Oakland shortly after he was released by Green Bay. Nelson caught 53 of his 88 targets last season, gaining just 482 yards and reaching the end-zone six times. His average yards per catch cratered, falling to a career-low 9.1. At 33, Nelson has clearly lost a step (or steps). He isn’t likely to replace Michael Crabtree’s production. Jordy’s ADP, like Cooper’s and Carr’s, reflects a reckless level of optimism within the fantasy community (WR23, 52.5).
• Back in April, the Raiders dealt a third-round draft pick for Martavis Bryant, who now faces yet another possible suspension related to the league’s substance abuse policies. So that’s brutal news. Strike Bryant’s name from your fantasy cheat sheet for now. If he’s suspended, it has the potential to cost him a full season.
• Jared Cook established new single-season highs in catches (54) and receiving yards (688) last year, yet still finished as only the No. 15 fantasy tight end. At this stage of his career, entering his age-31 season, he’s not a player to target. Cook is simply a guy to consider if you punt his position in a deep league. Still, he’s sure to be hyped if/when Bryant is suspended, because fantasy analysts are forever finding reasons to push Cook on the public. Bah.
• Marshawn Lynch delivered as productive a season as anyone could have anticipated last year, rushing for 891 yards on 207 carries (4.3 YPC) and catching 20 passes. Not bad for a player on the wrong side of 30, following a year of retirement. Lynch actually improved as the season rolled along, topping 100 scrimmage yards three times in his final six games. As a high-mileage 32-year-old back, he’s probably best used as a committee runner. But that may not be what Gruden has in mind.
This via NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling:
“I said to him: ‘I need Marshawn Lynch. I don’t need this part-time Lynch. I need full-time Lynch,'” Gruden said, recounting the details of his meeting with Lynch earlier that day.
“We need the real deal,” Gruden continued. “If you’re going to put those letters on the back of your jersey, man, you’ve got to back it up, Marshawn — right? We don’t need another back, we need a feature back.”
Only six running backs in NFL history have handled 260 or more carries beyond age 32, and only one of those guys averaged better than 4.0 YPC (Walter Payton, 1986). You absolutely cannot draft Lynch expecting a featured runner’s workload. Oakland would be crazy to use him that way.
• Doug Martin was miserable last season (2.9 YPC) and hasn’t been productive since 2015, so of course the Raiders signed him. (It kinda feels as if this team used a three-year-old fantasy draft guide to develop its offseason shopping list, no?) Prepare yourself for another summer of Martin-shows-renewed-burst! stories from camp, because it’s an annual tradition. But please do not draft Martin. He appeared to be cooked two years ago; he’s averaged less than 4.0 YPC in four of the past five seasons. Jalen Richard is a more explosive back, but it sounds as if he and DeAndre Washington might be battling for a single roster spot.
• Khalil Mack deserves a mention, too, because many of you play IDP and he’s a badass. However, Oakland’s defense ranked in the bottom-third of the league last season in terms of yardage, scoring, takeaways and sacks. It’s an undraftable unit in fantasy.
Las Vegas seems to think the Raiders can be an 8-win team, which would be a modest improvement on last year’s finish (6-10). Gruden never failed to reach the .500 mark in his first run as Oakland’s head coach, but getting there in 2018 is gonna be tricky. Here’s hoping he succeeds, because the NFL is always a bit more entertaining when the Raiders are relevant.
2017 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 18.8 (23rd in NFL)
Pass YPG – 226.9 (16)
Rush YPG – 97.1 (25)
Yards per play – 5.4 (11)
Plays per game – 59.5 (30)