The Oakland Raiders lured Jon Gruden away from his MNF Announcing Booth with a blockbuster 10 year, $100 million deal. Gruden has hired Greg Olson — 10 time OC and, most recently Jared Goff’s QB coach — as his offensive coordinator. Still, Gruden is expected to call the offensive shots.
This is perhaps the flashiest coaching hire ever, and while Gruden may have a 10 year coaching absence to fill, his return is incredibly intriguing both for fantasy and real-life football. This is especially true for his WR1 and pass-catching backfield pieces, who have flourished under him.
Gruden began his NFL playcalling career in 1995 as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. His first head coaching gig came three years later in 1998 with the Raiders, where he lasted four seasons which included two playoff berths, a 2-2 record, and a conference title game… but no Super Bowl visits.
That all changed in 2002, when Gruden joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and won a Super Bowl in his first season. He coached another six, largely mediocre years here that included just two playoff berths and zero postseason wins. He holds a 95-81 overall record (.540 win percentage)
West Coast Smashmouth
Grinding, physical attacks have long been Gruden's calling-card in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, his offense has historically been centered around a power run game that includes a bruising fullback. And while the league has moved to more one-back sets and pass-heavier schemes, Gruden's early personnel and comments indicate this old-school attack is likely to remain in the modern era.
Gruden's stated his intention to, "throw the game back to 1998," and he put money to his mouth with "thrilling" high-dollar contracts to FB Keith Marshall and blocking tight-end Derek Carrier. Additionally, the Raiders mauling linemen, who've graded in PFF's Top-10 Line rankings in back-to-back season, fit the power blocking scheme perfectly. Gruden also loves establishing the playaction game off of this pounding attack, often sending FBs out into the flat on these kinds of plays. Though the team is now built for 30 "Spider 2 Y Banana” fullback dump-offs a game, it's certainly debatable if hitting rewind will actually work in the modern NFL.
If and when he decides to throw the rock, Gruden's passing game is rooted in a “West Coast System.” In general, West Coast offenses work more horizontal, quick-strike routes such as slants, drags, and flat pattern that feature plenty of ins and outs. The goal is minimize the risk, get the ball in your playmakers hands, and let the YAC follow. Timing and rhythm are key here, and Gruden has often peppered his top slot wideout with targets and YAC opportunities -- in all 11 seasons calling plays, his top WR has always surpassed 1,000 yards.
Over his 9 years of coaching, Gruden has featured a very balanced attack, sporting a career 56% pass / 44 % ratio. Moreover, he’s never topped 59% passing, though the league’s grown decisively more pass-heavy in his absence and Rich Gannon is the top QB he’s worked with.
No huddle attacks have become increasingly prevalent since Gruden left, and he’s noted on his QB Camp show: “If I ever come back and coach, I’m never huddling again!” Still, his intention remains turning the clock backwards on the NFL, so whether or not he's promising a lot of "No Huddle" audibles, the upside feels capped in this offense.
Ultimately, Derek Carr posseses more talent than anyone Gruden has worked with in his career. The coach himself appears well aware of this, heaping on the praise long before they were coworkers.
Here’s just a few of the glowing comments Gruden offered on Carr in 2014 and 2016, during broadcast preparations and his own “QB Camp”:
“I can remember him throwing the ball like it was yesterday… We have two cameras set up 20 yards downfield on each hash mark, and we threw some seam passes toward them. Most of the guys hit the screen, a couple would hit the target. Derek Carr hit the bull’s eye both times and broke my cameras. He put on a show for the NFL players.”
That was in response to a question about Carr’s ability. Then Gruden said something unprompted:
“What hasn’t been said about Carr today is about his intangibles… He’s such an upbeat kid. He has so much passion and energy and leadership. He is fun to be around. He’s a superstar.
“To put it honestly, this guy has a cannon. He’s got a gun. He can throw it tight windows with very little movement. He has a quick release and very little lower body movement. He has an arsenal of receivers. Al Davis would be very proud of Derek Carr.”
In fact, Gruden was so infatuated with Carr that Mark Davis reportedly drafted the signal caller with the hope it’d lure their former coach out of retirement. According to the well-connected Albert Breer:
"Let’s back up to the 2014 draft for some history here. Oakland owner Mark Davis has been known to consult with Gruden on football matters, and Gruden made clear to Davis how much he thought of Carr, to the point where Davis wound up advocating to GM Reggie McKenzie that the team take Carr with the fourth overall pick. McKenzie and the staff wound up holding off the dogs on that one, and the rest actually played out perfectly. The team got a generational talent at 4, in Khalil Mack, and still wound up with Carr in the second round. But to the coaches who were there, there was a feeling that Davis, who’d always been interested in bringing back Gruden, wanted Carr badly because he knew that Carr, if he panned out, could wind up being a chip to entice the old coach. And lo and behold, it sure looks like it might’ve been."
Consider him lured out. So now what?
Carr is staring at a stacked cast of weapons. Despite losing Michael Crabtree, the offense now boasts Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant alongside Amari Cooper. Yet, all the firepower in the world won't matter if poorly utilized, and Gruden's intention to turn back the clock and lack of past quality QB numbers has to be worrisome.
Still, Gruden’s overflowing confidence in Carr’s arm and intangibles can only be considered positives... if he actually let's him uncork the rock. Typically, deep shots are few and far between in a Gruden scheme, and his early commentary hasn't inspired confidence for sudden explosiveness.
Gruden may say, “It is very exciting. I think there’s a huge ceiling for Derek Carr... it’s up to us as a coaching staff to improve, ground him, get more consistent [and] come up with an offense that allows him to soar to another level." Yet, Gruden's vision and history also suggest 25 fullback flat routes... which doesn't typically translate a soaring ceiling. There's little reason to expect Carr to suddenly ascend off of his dreadful 2017 with Gruden.
The numbers don’t lie: Gruden funnels looks and production to his top target.
In all 11 seasons as a head coach, Gruden has ALWAYS produced a 1,000 yard WR, with 4/6 of these wideouts setting yardage career highs under his watch. Just once did his top wideout see less than 122 looks. These numbers are even more impressive considering Gruden’s slower-paced, run-heavier attack AND the lack of QB talent at his disposal. Imagine if Carr can realize his ceiling and Gruden adapts to today’s speed and pass-heavy ways?
Tight ends did not fare nearly as well, however. Outside a 9 TD outlier campaign out of a creature named Rickey Dudley, Gruden has never produced a fantasy-worthy tight end. 555 yards are the highest a tight end has ever produced, and 9 of his 11 TEs have been under 400, 4 TDs, and 40 receptions.
Though many won’t touch Amari Cooper following a dreadful 680 yard, 7 TD campaign, Gruden’s a reason to restore faith — beyond just Cooper’s own high-end ability. Prior to his third year dud, Cooper posted back-to-back 130+ tgt, 70+ reception, and 1000+ yard campaigns, which are consistent with Gruden’s top targets. Both the player and coach track records suggest a return to this mean seems likely, especially with a higher-percentage West Coast Attack being installed. Ideally, his price will be driven down by recency bias and those unaware of Gruden’s tendencies, creating a fantastic investing opportunity for owners.
One particularly dominant WR under Gruden was Tim Brown, and he’s predicting massive results for Cooper: “If he can’t (get the best out of Cooper), nobody can,” Brown said. “I think for Amari, this is going to be an incredible opportunity for him to get 120-125 catches a year with no problems.”
Conveniently, Gruden himself has echoed this sentiment, stating "I said it when he came out of Alabama, that he reminded me of a young Tim Brown. He has that type of game speed. He's elusive, and has a wide range of routes he can run...great things are ahead.... I've said it earlier. We're going to make him the main vein of our passing offense and move him around a lot."
Indeed, Gruden did express a similar outlook at the combine, saying Cooper will "Be the focal point of our offense...he'll be the headliner in our offense."
Though 125 catches is hyperbolic, a 100-1200-8 stat line isn’t out of Cooper’s grasp. Brown feasted out of the slot, where Cooper has been at his most dominant dating back to Alabama. In fact, last years 11 catch – 210 yd -2 TD week winner came while he ran 35% of his routes from the slot, by far the highest in his career. PFF has all the stats, noting:
"Despite running just 17.9 percent of his routes away from the outside boundary, Cooper has averaged 2.81 yards per route run from the slot in his three-year NFL career. He has also brought in seven of his 15 receiving touchdowns (46.7 percent) at slot receiver.
To add perspective, Cooper’s 2.81 YPRR from the slot would rank No. 4 in the PFF era (since 2006) if measured against the top season performances — in terms of YPRR – by a starting slot receiver. His career 1.76 career YPRR would drop to just 1.53 if we were to subtract his slot production from his NFL stat line.
The Alabama product’s dominance in the slot even dates back to his final year in Tuscaloosa, as he totaled 443 receiving yards and four touchdowns on just 66 slot routes to average 6.71 YPRR with the Crimson Tide in 2014."
Hopefully, Gruden's plans to "move Cooper all over" includes plenty of slot visitations. This is where Tim Brown forged a legacy, so this assumption is easy to draw. Up to this point, Cooper’s been wildly inconsistent. Even in topping 1,000 yards his first two seasons, Cooper’s monster efforts versus duds were impossible to project. However, under a coach who’s long produced monster WR1 campaigns and capitalized on similar skillsets, Cooper could easily have his most productive season yet.
This breakout could come despite other big-name wideout additions in Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant. Only once has Gruden produced two fantasy-quality WRs in the same season, so Nelson and Bryant seem unlikely to provide reliable fantasy production in 2018. While Cooper may have more targets to contend with on paper, Michael Crabtree and his unbreakable rapport with Carr would've been far greater concerns.
Lastly, now entering his 10th season, don’t expect the athletic Jared Cook to suddenly “realize his potential” under Gruden. As mentioned, 555 yards are the highest total from a Gruden TE, with 9 of 11 TEs producing under 400, 4 TDs, and 40 receptions. The fullback is honestly a better fantasy option... and if you use a fullback... LOL.
Run Game Impact
Historically, Gruden has deployed his backs in a bloodcurdling committee fashion.
In fact, seven of his 11 backfields have been full blown time shares, and even his “workhorses” have had either their TDs or receptions being chewed upon by someone else. Only 2 RBs have ever topped 1000 rushing yards, and just five have registered 7+ rushing TDs.
Yet, room for optimism definitely remains. Primarily, because of the massive passing game volume that’ll be schemed.
Over his 11 seasons, Gruden’s RBs accounted for 32% of his offense’s target share. By comparison in 2017, Panthers RBs registered 30% target share and that’s with Christian McCaffrey racking up a league-leading 113 looks, while the Saints sat at 33% with 100 to Alvin Kamara and 71 to Mark Ingram. In 8 of his 11 seasons, an RB has caught at least 40 balls under Gruden.
This, of course, amounts to significant total yardage. Even with pathetic rushing totals, Gruden’s has had a 1,000+ total yard back in all but one season, where Cadillac Williams fell short by 4 yards but missed 2 contests.
The real issue here has been the TD inconsistency. Oftentimes, Gruden has divided his TDs up among three backs, especially if a bruising fullback is present. Thus, ceilings feel capped in standard leagues, but PPR gamers should love the total yardage and reception history here.
Early Downs & GL:
Oakland’s 2017 leading rusher Marshawn Lynch plans to return, and Gruden hasn't hid his love for The Beast, nor his intentions to ride him:
“I said to him, ‘I need Marshawn Lynch,” Gruden told Sports Illustrated in February. ‘I don’t need this part-time Lynch. I need full-time Lynch. We need the real deal... 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.”
“Looking at our film and the game that I broadcast on Christmas night, there’s no question he’s still the Beast, that’s hard to bring down,” Gruden said of Lynch in February. “And one of the reasons that I’m excited to be with the Raiders is to join forces with Lynch, but we’ll see what happens. I’m counting on him being a big part of our football team.”
Despite Gruden's sketchy committee history, especially at the stripe, don't expect any vultures here. Tyron Wheatley is the best physical match to Lynch from Gruden's past RBs; while Wheatley may have lost receiving work, he had a stranglehold at the goalline, which resulted in back-to-back double digit TD seasons in 1999 and 2000 (11 and 10 TDs respectively).
Marshawn should approach those TD numbers in 2018. Lynch's family and friends report he's "loves Gruden" and is answering the challenge by working himself into "the best condition I’ve seen him in in a long time."
There's some very real unsexy upside here. For one, Lynch openly admits he wasn't in game-shape until midseason last year... when, in the final 8 weeks, Lynch happened to rush for 625 of 891 yards (70%) came in final 8 weeks, as well as 5 of 7 TDs (71%). A Pro-Bowl level 1250 yds and 10 TDs pace.
Beyond his physical form, Lynch benefited from the team's switch from a zone-based attack to a power-heavy blocking scheme. In this misfitted zone-blocking scheme, PFF had the offensive line allowing the RB’s only 1.42 yards before contact collectively. In 2016 with power-blocking, the Raiders O-line allowed 1.9 yards before contact. This is fantastic news, as Gruden has historically deployed a power-blocking scheme -- ideal for the absolute bruisers along the Raiders line. Moreover, new o-line coach Tom Cable worked with Lynch in Seattle, and, despite a history in zone schemes, Cable fully understands the concepts and assignments in which Lynch thrives.
The only real threat to Lynch's early down work would be Doug Martin, who signed with the Raiders on a one-year deal. Early reports have Martin "showing that quick burst" in camp, but he was also reportedly in the best shape of his career and flying all over practice for the Bucs last spring. Don't buy any Martin hype unless it's happening with pads on.
If anyone is intriguing right now, it’d be Jalen Richard. He’s incredibly tough to get a hold of, and, in fact, was graded as the NFL’s most elusive running back per Pro Football Focus in 2016. He also led the league in yards after contact per attempt that year as well. Though these numbers decreased in his sophomore campaign, Richard still tallied a 52 yard TD run and continued flashing his natural pass-catching prowess.
If Gruden thrusts him into the “Michael Pittman / Charlie Garner” role and sends 80ish targets Richard’s way, the talented back would undoubtedly approach 1000 total yards and 50+ catches. His PPR appeal could skyrocket, and he's among the top early "Penny Stocks" in fantasy football. As a reminder: Over his 11 seasons, Gruden’s RBs accounted for 32% of his offense’s target share. By comparison in 2017, Panthers RBs registered 30% target share and that’s with Christian McCaffrey racking up a league-leading 113 looks. In 8 of his 11 seasons, an RB has caught at least 40 balls under Gruden.
In short, Gruden has historically schemed enough receiving and goal line usage to easily sustain two highly relevant fantasy backs. This line will again rank in the Top-10 of the league, with Top 5 upside under Tom Cable's tutelage and a switch to a better-fitting power-blocking scheme. With completely depressed ADPs, Lynch (82 Overall, RB33), Richard (259, RB73), and even Martin (153, RB51) all offer some serious "unsexy upside."
Indeed, Gruden has been out of the game for 10 years now. This makes any concrete conclusions impossible to draw, and pretending otherwise would be foolish.
Still, some glaring trends emerged that seem likely to carry over as Gruden installs his West Coast Smashmouth scheme in Oakland.
One: Derek Carr is going to be pushed harder than ever before, and has the smarts and the arm talent to succeed. Yet, Gruden's early promises to "throw the game back to 1998" and his offseason moves suggest this will be a grinding, slow-motion type of attack. Thus, Carr's upside seems limited, unless Gruden meshes his old philosophies with new age speed and play-calling techniques.
Yet, there's still pass-game value to be had here, especially in the WR1 -- presumably Amari Cooper. Gruden's top wideout has topped 122 targets in 10/11 seasons under Gruden, while all 11 have featured a 1,000+ yard pass-catcher. At the moment, Amari Cooper feels like the safest bet for this volume, as Gruden has gushed about him as the "main vein" and "focal point" of the entire offense. Gruden's promised to move Cooper around more, and has compared him to Tim Brown, who dominated out of the slot under Gruden. Conveniently, Cooper's been at his best while lined up inside, and it seems he'll finally be properly utilized here. After such a disappointment, however, Cooper's price has fallen, and creates an excellent investing opportunity.
Out of the backfield, a committee approach is a near certainty after Gruden has ridden shared backfields in 7 of his 11 seasons, and never truly handed all three-downs of work to one back. Even in this scenario, Gruden has targeted RBs so voluminously in the passing game and at the stripe that he’s churned out a 1,000+ total yardage back in 10/11 seasons. Gruden's already raved about Marshawn Lynch, calling the back out for showing up out of shape last year, stating he wants "full-time" "featured back" Marshawn Lynch. He should have the early down work locked up, and is reportedly in peak form this year. Meanwhile, Jalen Richard may carry a 259 ADP price point, but he drips in sneaky appeal as the best fit for the pass-catching role. Remember - Gruden's RBs have accounted for 32% of his team's target share, which is right in line with the 2017 Saints for perspective. Someone will rack up 40-50+ catches, and Richard's my sneaky favorite bet.
Ultimately, Gruden has the building blocks he seeks. The main question is whether his slower-paced, "1998 throw back" style will actually resonate in the modern game. My gut tells me he’ll fire this squad up, at least early on, and succeed in bringing out quality stats from Cooper, Lynch, and Richard, who all go down as strong values in 2018.
What do you expect of Jon Gruden with the Raiders? Will you ever trust Amari Cooper again? Can Marshawn muster up one more "Beast Mode" season?
Copyright 2018, Roto Street Journal