Raiders owner Mark Davis and his new head coach Jon Gruden are the Dumb and Dumber of the NFL. They have the haircuts, and according to many fantasy analysts that I respect, they've earned the role for their off-season acquisitions:
- Signing 32-year-old Jordy Nelson.
- Acquiring twice-suspended Doug Martin to back up 31-year-old Marshawn Lynch.
- Trading for twice-suspended Martavis Bryant.
- Giving up a 7th-round pick for Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
- Cutting top punter Marquette King.
A short history of Gruden's personnel decisions
It's a convenient snap-take to examine Gruden's off-season moves and conclude that he's woefully behind the curve of the NFL. A deeper look into Gruden's coaching career reveals a pattern of successful behavior.
Like Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and several other successful NFL head coaches, Gruden has his guys — core players who create and enforce a team culture. If core players don't fit the culture, coaches like Gruden will get rid of them early in his tenure and often with great consternation to fans and media.
The greatest responsibility of a head coach is managing the team. Some take on more everyday responsibility with play calls and game plans, but the most successful head coaches understand that effective management requires a balance of creation, education, implementation, delegation, follow-up, feedback, discipline, and inspiration.
Acquiring qualified people who fit the culture and can lead others within the scope of their responsibilities is an essential part of strong team-building in any environment. For an NFL team, this support staff includes assistant coaches, trainers, and veteran players — even those who don't make on-field contributions but possess the skills and experience to help teammates grow.
The West Coast Offense places a lot of demands on a quarterback and his receivers, including the play verbiage and adjustments. The most productive offenses often make the best adjustments to the opposition. As dominant an athlete Randy Moss was in the NFL, his game intelligence was prized just as much.
Gruden's first year as an offensive coordinator was with the Eagles in 1995, and the roster included 38-year-old wide receiver Art Monk — a consummate possession receiver and future Hall of Famer. Monk only earned 116 yards in 1995 but his presence marks the beginning of a pattern with Gruden's coaching tenure: He wants intelligent veterans who still present physical match-up advantages in the role they've always played or he wants vets who can make a seamless switch to a new receiver role where they can sustain success.
In 1996, the Eagles acquired 34-year-old Irving Fryar. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft for the New England Patriots arrived in Philadephia after a three-year stint in Miami with Dan Marino. Always known as a vertical threat, Fryar's yardage totals dipped below 1,000 for the first time in 1995. In Gruden's scheme, Fryar earned consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, delivering two of his three best seasons during his 17-year career.
Irving Fryar's Old-Man Game Under Gruden
Once Gruden became a head coach with the Raiders in 1998, his offenses had a pattern of extending the production life of aging talents.
Gruden's Geriatric WR Formula
|Irving Fryar (X)||1996||34||16||152||88||1195||13.6||11||42|
|Irving Fryar (X||1997||35||16||153||86||1316||15.3||6||72|
|Tim Brown (Z)||1998||32||16||153||81||1012||12.5||9||49|
|Tim Brown (Z)||1999||33||16||145||90||1344||14.9||6||47|
|Tim Brown (Z)||2000||34||16||133||76||1128||14.8||11||45|
|Tim Brown (Z)||2001||35||16||140||91||1165||12.8||9||46|
|Jerry Rice (X)||2001||39||16||125||83||1139||13.7||9||40|
|Tim Brown (Z)||2002*||36||16||127||81||930||11.5||2||45|
|Jerry Rice (X)||2002*||40||16||150||92||1211||13.2||7||75|
|Keenan McCardell (Z)||2003||33||16||139||84||1174||14||8||76|
|Joey Galloway (X)||2004||33||10||53||33||416||12.6||5||36|
|Joey Galloway (X)||2005||34||16||152||83||1287||15.5||10||80|
|Joey Galloway (X)||2006||35||16||143||62||1057||17||7||64|
|Joey Galloway (X)||2007||36||15||98||57||1014||17.8||6||69|
|Antonio Bryant (X)||2008||27||16||138||83||1248||15||7||71|
|Flankers (Z)||6 seasons||32||16||149||81||1012||12.5||11||49|
|Split Ends (X)||9 seasons||34.1||15.2||126.8||71.9||1076.1||15.3||7.4||63.6|
There are several insights from this list:
- Gruden's formula worked for split ends (X receivers) and flankers (Z receivers).
- The 2002 seasons have an asterisk because Gruden was in Tampa but the players are still listed because the Raiders foolishly kept the same offense down to the exact play call verbiage, which helped Gruden's Buccaneers dominate his old him in the Super Bowl.
- Only McCardell and Galloway needed an adjustment season before their outputs climbed to the heights above.
- Galloway is the only receiver who didn't play complete seasons.
- Brown joined the Buccaneers in 2004, the same year Galloway joined the team. The 38-year-old Brown only earned 200 yards on the field, but his presence could have parallels to Monk joining the Eagles during Gruden's first season as an offensive coordinator.
- Antonio Bryant didn't qualify as an NFL geriatric but much like new Raider Martavis Bryant, he earned the label of a talented malcontent before arriving in Tampa. Bryant's season under Gruden was a career year.
- Although there was a slight edge for targeting the flanker in standard leagues and a bigger gap in their favor in PPR formats, this comparison shouldn't be taken too seriously because it's more accurately weighing the performances of Brown and McCardell versus Fryar, Rice, Galloway, and Bryant. Both the X and the Z offered favorable fantasy production in Gruden's offense.
Jordy Nelson's 2017 SEason: fantasy death or transition for rebirth?
Strictly on the basis of managing a football team, the addition of Nelson makes sense. He has been the top receiver for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time in a West Coast Offense similar to Gruden's.
A 10-year veteran, Nelson's experience aids Derek Carr's development as well as the development of Cooper, Bryant, and any young receiver and quarterback on the depth chart. Nelson can also act as a coach on the field, helping Cooper, Bryant, and Carr identify and community opportunities for play-winning adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Nelson joined the Raiders before the draft-day acquisition of Bryant and the idea of him as the starting split end in Oakland generated a lot of criticism. Many analysts say Nelson was noticeably slower in 2017.
Analysis about the state of a player's physical skill is fraught with error. It's difficult to figure out when an aging player is in physical decline or when his production dipped due to a lack of quality support. And if the assessment of a player's decline is accurate, it's often overestimated as a complete decline in every meaningful athletic facet that will inhibit production. It leads to writing off players too soon.
Adrian Peterson is a perfect example. Peterson no longer has the top gear he once had to turn gains of 10-15 yards into touchdowns exceeding 40 yards. However, Peterson definitively proved last year that he could deliver behind a healthy offensive line when the scheme matched the system of his prime years.
Analysts oversimplified Peterson's woes at the end of his tenure in Minnesota as well as his initial weeks in New Orleans because they didn't analyze the on-field cause-and-effect relationships of the factors that matter greatly for a productive ground game:
- Minnesota's decimated offensive line in 2016
- The dynamics of a power running game that aren't a good match for boxscore stats.
- The importance of matching Peterson's running style and background with the appropriate alignments and blocking schemes.
Too many people dismissed Peterson as a declining athlete when the only thing that declined was his top gear. The analysis lacks the subtlety. If it weren't for additional injuries to the offensive line, Carson Palmer, and an absence of a competent backup, Peterson could have remained a productive bell cow for the Cardinals.
The reason he's not in a camp right now has less to do with ability and more with economics. Peterson hasn't been a long-term answer for a team for at least the past five years and his veteran status and skill commands a price that's only worth considering if a team values itself as a contender and it's desperate for a capable playmaker at a position that has a glut of cheap and young talent.
Peterson's story — and the story of many aging players — often has similar dynamics where observers overstate a player's decline.
Nelson's recent career developments may fit within this spectrum. In 2016, Nelson was the top fantasy receiver in football after recovering from an ACL tear that cost him the 2015 season. While possible a receiver who earned 152 targets, 97 receptions, 1,257 yards, and 14 touchdowns could lose enough speed, quickness, and agility that he can't get separation and the result is an 88-target, 53-reception, 482-yard, and 6-touchdown follow-up, it's unlikely.
It's more likely that Brett Hundley favored Davante Adams more often than Nelson as his first read and he could not make pre- and post-snap reads with near the same level of expertise as Aaron Rodgers. It's a vital piece of analysis when examining the Packers' passing game because as physically mobile as Hundley is, it's more important for a quarterback to have technically-sound, controlled movements in the pocket that are paired with the quick and accurate diagnosis of pre- and post-snap tells from defenses.
Hundley wasn't making the best reads and adjustments or getting through enough reads due to his lack of experience and skill and a struggling offensive line. Rodgers had the same woes with his line, but he has mastered the strategic side of the game and it compensates for some of the unit's struggles. Hundley wasn't getting to Nelson or identifying opportunities for Nelson nearly as often as Rodgers.
Nelson's first six weeks of production when Aaron Rodgers was healthy was enough for him to be the No. 4 fantasy receiver in 2017 in standard leagues — two spots ahead of Adams — and the No. 6 option (one spot behind Adams) in PPR formats. While possible Nelson's athletic ability took a cliff dive the exact week Hundley took over for an injured Rodgers, it's a highly suspect conclusion.
The Packers decision to cut Nelson also helps others double down on this faulty assertion. According to NFL.com's Edward Lewis, the issue was financially driven.
"Nelson was slated to enter the final year of a four-year, $39 million deal with the Packers this season that came with a cap hit of more than $12 million. He anticipated being asked to take a pay cut, and even considered it up until he spoke with new Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst."
'I think the [pay cut] number was a part of it, but also the conversation I had in the meeting,' Nelson said. 'I met with Brian and had a discussion because I had to get a feel for not just the pay cut but what their plans were going forward. After that meeting, there wasn't, I don't think, much desire there. I think with the combination of both, we decided what was best for myself and my family [just] as they decided what was best for them and the Packers...'
None of this is to say that Nelson's athletic ability hasn't declined at all. However, like Peterson, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Joey Galloway, Peyton Manning, Corey Dillon, and several examples of aging but still productive veterans of the past, it doesn't mean Nelson is no longer athletic enough to deliver as a productive starter.
In fact, when a reporter asked Gutekunst if Nelson's play declined after his injury, the Packers GM gave a response that can be seen two ways. At best, it underscores the point of about Nelson losing some athletic ability but not enough to dismiss him as a starter. At worst, it's a statement one would expect from an executive who wants to float the idea that he was anticipating Nelson's decline to remain financially ahead of the game while not diminishing the player to the point that he'd look foolish by 2018's end.
"I think it's only natural as players get older, you see some physical decline," Gutekunst said to Green Bay Press-Gazette writer Ryan Wood. "But I think Jordy is a very good player. He'll contribute for somebody next year."
Nelson, Cooper, and Bryant in 2018
Based on the first six weeks of 2017, Nelson is fully capable of playing the X receiver spot in 2018 and producing as a top starter with a veteran quarterback the caliber of Derek Carr. However, the acquisition of Bryant affords Gruden several things:
- Nelson can be a short-term, highly productive redundancy plan at split end in case Bryant gets hurt or suspended.
- Nelson can become a highly productive flanker in the mold of Tim Brown and Keenan McCardell and Cooper work in the slot.
- Nelson and Cooper can alternate between flanker and the slot based on the defense and specific personnel matchups.
- Bryant is mostly a split end but has a little experience as a slot receiver, which further enhances the Raiders' offensive flexibility.
Fantasy outlooks for the Raiders aerial attack
Looking at the ADP of the Raiders' receivers, quarterback, and running backs, it appears that fantasy owners either think the Raiders offense will be a failure on the ground and through the air or they are afraid to invest in the unknown.
Oakland's ADP of WRs, RBs, and QB (PPR)
- Calvin Ridley (ADP 126)
- D.J. Moore (ADP 127)
- Cameron Meredith (ADP 128)
- Rishard Matthews (ADP 129)
- Kenny Stills (ADP 130)
- Martavis Bryant (ADP 132)
- Josh Doctson (ADP 139)
- Paul Richardson Jr (ADP 146)
- DeSean Jackson (ADP 147)
- Michael Gallup (ADP 149)
- Mohamed Sanu (ADP 152)
- Kenny Golladay (ADP 153)
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