The Fantasy Wolfpack's Guide
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, though the head coach 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 backfield, who have flourished under him.
NOTE – Just like our study on new Bears HC Matt Nagy (though for opposite reasons), drawing definite conclusions here is ill-advised. Gruden has been out of the league for a decade now, as the game has evolved quite a bit. Still, he’s clearly still been deeply involved in the game, and should’t be overly behind, if at all. Let’s dive into his past:
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)
Similar to Nagy, Gruden is also rooted in a “West Coast System.” In general, West Coast offenses stretch defenses horizontally via a quick-strike passing attack that features plenty of ins and outs. Re: slants, drags, and flat patterns. The goal is to minimize the risk, get the ball in your playmakers hands, and let them do their thing. Methodical with the goal of controlling time of possession and tempo, West Coast offenses are somewhat similar to a “ground-and-pound” attack, but through the air. Timing, rhythm, and getting the ball out of the QBs hands quickly are all general staples. Gruden has often peppered his top wideouts with targets and YAC opportunities.
Additionally, Gruden has typically favored a power run game that includes a bruising fullback. Obviously, many teams have moved to more one-back sets, but the Raiders mauling linemen would suggest another power scheme is likely. Gruden loves establishing the playaction game, and has often sent fullbacks out into the flat (“Spider 2 Y Banana”) on these kinds of plays.
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!” Regardless, this offense should see plenty of audibling at the center, perhaps adding more responsibility than ever to Derek Carr‘s plate:
“We’re going to ask a lot more from Derek Carr at the line of scrimmage,” Gruden said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “We’re going to put him in a position to do some of the things we did in the past with his recognition of defenses, his ability to communicate and showcase his talented arm.
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.
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?
Again, the future may be all that matters, but it’s difficult to judge since the NFL has changed mightily since Gruden was last on the sideline. Yet, Gruden’s overflowing confidence in Carr’s arm and intangibles can only be considered positives. He’ll be making every throw in all situations with no training wheels. Typically, this means big plays and big fantasy production.
As mentioned, Gruden has also hinted he’ll be incorporating plenty of no huddle and on-the-line adjustments. He’s always been a fan of ball-control, but unafraid of the deep shot.
Based on his love for Carr and his general success calling plays, Gruden should only be seen as a positive. He recognizes the untapped potential here, and plans to squeeze out the very best in him:
“It is very exciting. I think there’s a huge ceiling for Derek Carr. I think he’s proven that. And 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. But it’s exciting. If I was a Raider fan, I’d come to the stadium every week very excited to see No. 4 under center,” Gruden said.
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. Unless the team adds a marquee name, don’t expect much production out of the Oakland seam stretchers.
Though many won’t touch Amari Cooper following a dreadful 680 yard, 7 TD campaign, Gruden’s a reason to restore faith — beyond 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 all are consistent, if not below, Gruden’s top targets. Both the player and coach track records suggest a return to these means 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.”
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.
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 slot skillsets, Cooper could easily have his most productive season yet.
I expect Gruden to put Cooper where he belongs, and the results to follow.
The only roadblock to a massive rebound would be Michael Crabtree, who’s effectively operated as the Raiders under-the-radar WR1 for three straight seasons. Yet, Crabtree is a commonly-pegged cut candidate as he’s scheduled for a $7+ million dollar cap hit that carries a $0 release penalty. If he remains, I like Crabtree to remain in his “top dog” role as the more dependable guy, even if less athletic, and someone who thrives in the intermediate range.
Now entering his 10th season, don’t expect the athletic Jared Cook to suddenly “realize his potential” under Gruden.
Historically, Gruden has deployed his backs in a bloodcurdling word for fantasy owners: committee.
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 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.
As of now, this backfield picture is wholly unclear. Most prevalently, Oakland’s 2017 leading rusher Marshawn Lynch and his intentions are complete unknowns right now. If he returns, expect him to fill the goal line hammer role well, and be a threat for another 7+ TD season. If he retires, expect the team to target a bruising back in the draft — a possibility regardless of Lynch’s status given this class’ insane RB depth.
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.
Regardless, this backfield has countless questions to answer. Though a divided workload is likely, Gruden has historically schemed enough receiving and goal line usage to easily sustain two highly relevant fantasy backs.
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 scheme in Oakland.
One, Derek Carr is going to be pushed harder than ever before, and has the smarts and the arm talent to thrive. Growing pains feel likely, but don’t be surprised to see Carr explode down the stretch if Gruden’s run / pass balance swings with the current times.
Much of that volume will be directed at the WR1, as the 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, given Michael Crabtree is an expected cap casualty. Cooper should at least rebound to his 70+ catch, 1000+ yard, 6+ TD ways with said volume, but the upside for much greater exists. After such a disappointment, however, expect his price to drop and Cooper to present an excellent investing opportunity. The tight end has consistently been forgotten in Gruden’s scheme, and thus Jared Cook can be erased by anyone still holding on hope.
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 that he’s churned out a 1,000+ total yardage back in 10/11 seasons. Jalen Richard drips in sneaky appeal as the current best fit for this role, but this draft class is stacked and an infusion of young talent seems likely. Stay heavily tuned.
Ultimately, the pieces are in place for a strong Raiders rebound under Gruden, but the coach is a complete question mark after such a prolonged absence. My gut tells me he’ll fire this squad up and succeed in bringing out the best in Carr, Cooper, and a rookie back who explodes for a monster campaign.
What do you expect of Jon Gruden with the Raiders? Will you ever trust Amari Cooper again? What running back do you want to see in Oakland?
Copyright 2018, Roto Street Journal