Training camp has finally arrived. Rookies and veterans alike have checked in for intense weeks of learning, fine tuning and adding new wrinkles which will propel them to lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February. At least, that is the plan.
Few camps will be more interesting than the one taking place in Napa Valley Marriott, California. Jon Gruden will take a Raiders camp for the first time in 15 years with a great feeling of nostalgia in their air, tinged with uncertainty and, perhaps, expectancy, as Derek Carr and company look to rebound from a poor campaign.
One of the finer points of interest will be how Oakland’s crowded backfield will shake out. Heading into the Napa Valley retreat Gruden has a murky running back room to sift through.
Marshawn Lynch had a quietly effective campaign in 2017. Doug Martin was recruited in free agency after spending his first six years the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington also populate the depth chart.
While the bell cow back is back in vogue, the committee approach is still effective. Lynch will be the unquestionable starter – the inquiry over the next several weeks will be who gets into the rotation alongside him?
Martin’s roster status is insecure. Signing a one-year deal worth $1.475 million in March, the 29-year-old wants to recapture his 2015 form which landed him the NFL rushing title with 1,402 yards. The contract features no guaranteed money, so Martin is really on the roster bubble heading into camp.
Last season Richard and Washington proved to be capable backups to Lynch. Richard was particularly impressive, 4.9 yards per carry and 9.5 yards per catch across limited snaps gave an extra dimension to the Raiders’ run game with the Southern Mississippi product in the line-up.
Washington could find himself the odd man out, his production is lower than Richard’s, just 2.7 yards per carry and 5.8 yards per catch, and he is not the handpicked Gruden guy like Martin.
There is a case to be made that Oakland could roster all four of their backs: the contracts being handed out to everybody but Lynch are paying peanuts, Washington and Richard’s cap hits are $698,000 and $630,000 respectively. There is no urgency to cut one unless the need arises.
A temptation to make the running game needlessly complicated, crowbarring in all available backs, is dangerous territory. The three, or in this case four, headed monster evokes imagery of Cerberus – something mythical, strangely elegant while remaining punishingly brutal and terrifying. Yet such a cocktail of runners can be prone to producing disjointed performances.
Look no further than New Orleans with three running backs all jostling for snaps before the Saints cut ties with Adrian Peterson. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram were able to form a historical tandem – it is hard to imagine that would have been the case had Sean Payton insisted on giving Peterson carries.
‘Beast Mode’ never does anything quietly, but his 1,042 yards from scrimmage (891 rushing, 151 receiving) was under the radar in 2017. Averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 13.8 carries per game, the fascination will be by how much Gurden plans to reduce his workload.
Prior to last season, the last time Lynch averaged under 15 carries a game throughout a season was in 2009, when he donned a Buffalo Bills helmet. A power back who relies on volume carries to get into a rhythm and tire out a defensive line with his punishing running style, Lynch’s effectiveness on the field could be neutered for the sake of Gruden squeezing in his plethora of backs.
Case in point, and perhaps a warning to heed for the Raiders coaching staff, would be Peterson’s brief stint in The Big Easy compared to his time in Arizona. The 2012 Most Valuable Player averaged just 6.75 carries with the Saints, that number was dwarfed when he got an average of 21.5 attempts under Bruce Arians. Lynch is in the same brutish mould as ‘All-Day’, he needs carries to establish a tone. Failure to cater to that would be taking the venom from a cobra.
Training camp will be the first big indicator of how the Raiders’ muddled backfield will shake out. Lynch will unmistakably be the RB1, but after that the race is open. Martin’s hopes are pinned on him recapturing his form of 2015, meanwhile there the fight for possible third down back honours turn the way of Richard and Washington.
in an ideal world Gruden would find a way to keep all four on the books while creating an offense which operates smoothly regardless of who lines up in the backfield. But the NFL is anything but an ideal world.
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