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The Gut Check No. 437: Is Oakland's Passing Attack A Contrarian Play? - Footballguys

The Raiders have drawn criticism for their off-season moves. Matt Waldman sees productive contrarian plays from Oakland's passing game.

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:

The likes of Evan Silva, Jeff Radcliffe, Justis Mosqueda, and Sigmund Bloom on Twitter railing on the Raiders for moves that appear as if they are woefully behind the times have compelling points.
 
However, when many of fantasy football's major voices all agree, it's worthwhile to examine the contrarian view. Giving real credence to the opposing viewpoint can lead to embracing successes that most wrote off without consideration or avoiding debacles that most unquestionably embraced. 
 
Conventional wisdom in fantasy football is an oxymoron because once an idea becomes conventional in a competitive arena, it's no longer the safest strategy. Those who excel are the exceptional cases, and you can't be exceptional when you're following the masses. 
 
At this stage of the season, the Raiders offense is shaping up to become the unit where the conventional play is to avoid Oakland's skill players. Because of the dynamics of conventionality and contrarianism in a competitive environment, we should at least take a serious second look at the Raiders' players. 
 
And there are compelling arguments that Oakland's offensive players will be undervalued this year. This week, we'll profile the Raiders' passing game.
 

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

Year Age G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng

1996

34 16 152 88 1195 13.6 11 42
1997 35 16 153 86 1316 15.3 6 72

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

Player Year Age G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng
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  49 
 Tim Brown (Z) 1999  33  16 145  90  1344  14.9  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  46 
 Jerry Rice (X) 2001  39 16 125 83 1139  13.7  40 
 Tim Brown (Z) 2002* 36  16 127  81   930 11.5  45 
Jerry Rice (X) 2002*  40  16 150  92  1211  13.2  75
Keenan McCardell (Z) 2003  33  16 139  84  1174  14  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
Totals/Averages 15 seasons 33.9 15.5 131.2 72.9 1068.1 14.9 7.9 62
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.
When looking at Gruden's history, it's not surprising that he took a chance on a talented X receiver playing in the shadow of one of the best pass catchers in the league. Nor should it be remotely shocking that Gruden signed an aging X receiver in Nelson who is one year removed from elite production at his position and can play all three receiver positions.
 
Some may see a crypt for the damned, but their desire to be the NFL media's vanguard puts them in danger of dismissing compelling points about the coach, players, and roles. It may not be a knee-jerk reaction to old players and old ideas for all, but the fantasy community has an obsession with identifying production declines, which dissuades them exploring exceptional possibilities.
 

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.
Because Cooper and Nelson have skill and experience with all three receiver positions, expect this duo to be the starting options in two-receiver sets. Their skills will allow Oakland to use a fullback to maximize the strengths of its talented but underutilized ground game but have its most versatile matchup receivers on the field at the same time. 
 
Cooper and Nelson will give Carr more freedom at the offensive line to adjust to the defense pre-snap and get the Raiders into ideal running and passing plays based on formation, alignments, and one-on-one matchups. When Oakland opts for three-receiver packages, Bryant will be the split end but he can occasionally switch spots with whoever is playing the slot if the defense reveals a deep seam or wide-open swath of interior zone that he can run through.  
 
There aren't a lot of young receivers who are skilled at playing multiple positions at a high level. Cooper was at his best last year as a slot receiver.  In Week 7 against the Chiefs, Cooper earned 11 catches, 210 yards, and 2 touchdowns and 18 of those snaps came from the slot, resulting in 95 yards and a score. 
 
One of the advantages that slot receivers have is that often face a wider variety of defenders during the course of a game than outside receivers. There's less of that game-within-a-game between receivers and defenders that result in one player anticipating the other after squaring off for several snaps. It often allows a slot receiver to use his best moves against defenders who haven't solely prepared for him. 
 
However, a slot receiver only earns this benefit if he excels at reading the defense and understands how to anticipate open zones and establish a strong rapport with his quarterback during the initial pre-snap and post-snap phases of play. Although not working from the slot, this touchdown by Cowboys rookie Michael Gallup is an excellent example of a receiver reading a defense and adjusting with his quarterback. 
 
 
This is where Cooper and Nelson excel and why there's a good argument that Bryant will be the third wheel in this offense. However, even if Nelson or Cooper is the "third option" who is off the field in two-receiver sets, three-receiver sets are becoming the base alignment around the league. 
 
According to Football Outsiders, the league saw a rise in three-receiver sets (11 personnel) from 54.7 percent usage across the league in 2015 to 60.4 percent in 2016 and writer Bryan Knowles reveals it has been trending upward from 40 percent in 2010 and rising steadily ever since. Sharp Football tracked the league's use of 11 personnel to 59 percent in 2017. 
 
In contrast, the league's use of a fullback, two receivers, and a tight end (21 personnel) remains below 10 percent. That low percentage use of 21 personnel may appear to be a counterargument against the idea that Gruden will lean on a power running game in 2018, but that idea stems from the success that teams of the recent past used power sets and attacked defenses built to play the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers used 21 personnel on nearly 25 percent of its offensive snaps — the second-most in the NFL — during a 12-4 season that led to an appearance in the NFC Championship. 
 
Last year, the Patriots, 49ers, Bears, and Falcons were the teams that used 21 personnel the most. The year before, the Patriots and Falcons were also two of the five teams that used this grouping the most. Kyle Shanahan implemented two of the three offenses at the top of these 2016-17 lists and it's a system that has the same roots as Gruden's. The Falcons, 49ers, and Patriots also used 11 personnel 44-50 percent of its snaps. 
 
The idea that the league has passed Gruden by is a narrative with holes. It may prove correct, but there's enough compelling evidence that it's dead-wrong. There's even more compelling evidence that even if the Raiders struggle in the win-loss column, the offense has fantasy talent that's overlooked and underrated.
 
Incomplete analysis about Gruden's coaching history, the nuance of athletic decline, personnel usage, and how a change in role or surrounding talent can give an old player new life make the Raiders a wellspring for productive contrarian plays on the ground and through the air in 2018.
 

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)

Player ADP Position Value High Low
Amari Cooper 37 WR15 29 41
Jordy Nelson 89 WR37 79 149
Martavis Bryant 132 WR54 112 166
Derek Carr 142 QB19 82 148
Marshawn Lynch 84 RB35 70 134
Doug Martin 157 RB56 145 205
Cooper's ADP is the only optimistic fantasy view of the players on this table. In fact, fantasy football is giving Cooper a mulligan for his 2017 performance (WR35) because his 2018 ADP is one spot higher than his statistical finish in 2016. Because early thoughts on the Raiders include the use of Cooper as the flanker and a slot option, he's the safest and easiest projection. 
 
If Cooper approaches the average performance of the flankers in Gruden's offense, he could earn top-10 value at his position at the price of WR15. It makes Cooper a nice value as a fantasy team's first or second receiver — especially for drafters who want to consider a running back during the first two rounds. 
 
If you like waiting until the middle rounds for a running back, Cooper presents nice value as a second receiver. Nelson also looks like a good for the Upside-Down Strategy as that 3rd or 4th wideout taken sometime during the 5th and 10th rounds where you're focusing on mid-round runners. While risky to take shots on the aging Lynch and Nelson back-to-back, their ADPs are low enough that it fits if you're picking with this strategy at the back turn of a snake draft in the seventh and eighth rounds. 
 
Corey Davis, Cooper Kupp, Robby Anderson, Chris Hogan, Jamison Crowder, and Will Fuller V are all leaving the board in this range. Only Kupp and Crowder have a proven history and quarterback. Anderson and Fuller have skills and quarterbacks that make their upsides even more compelling than Kupp and Crowder. However, if you're buying the argument that Nelson's first six weeks of 2017 had him on track for top-10 PPR production at his position before Aaron Rodgers got hurt, then none of these options possess each of the factors that we can link to Nelson: production upside, proven skill, fit with system, and caliber of quarterback.
 
Bryant will be available at the 10-11 turn if you're seeking a high-upside selection. You might be able to pair him with Rishard Matthews and get two potential value plays at the turn if you went quarterback and tight end a little earlier or you're waiting longer to select key options at one, if not both, of these positions.
 
There's no doubt that he's talent capable of top-15 production but if the analysis above is correct, he could be the Raiders receiver with the lowest amount of snaps this year. That said, his offense, quarterback, surrounding talent, and previous production makes him every bit as appealing as the players in his ADP range — if not more: 
 
Ridley has appeal if buzz from Falcons camp confirms that he and Matt Ryan are developing a great rapport that can make him the immediate replacement to Roddy White that Atlanta has lacked for a few years. It's unlikely to be this good this soon. The same can be said of the immediate upside between Moore and Cam Newton and Gallup and Dak Prescott.
 
Stills, Sanu, and Golladay have limited upside. They flash but they must prove there are more dimensions to their games. Golladay is the only one who hasn't earned the extensive playing time to prove otherwise. None of them seem as appealing as Bryant. 
 
Doctson and Richardson have flashed — Richardson the most, but they're paired with a quarterback in Alex Smith who prefers to throw deep when there's massive separation. Smith is conservative about throwing into tight coverage, which is where both options excel. That said, Richardson has the edge in speed to Doctson but neither seem as safe as Bryant, who meshes well with Carr's vertical attitude that doesn't fear tight coverage. 
 
The only two options that are as compelling as Bryant in this range are Meredith and Matthews. Meredith has a great quarterback, offensive mind, and surrounding talent in New Orleans. His rehab also appears ahead of schedule. Matthews has the most rapport with Marcus Mariota. Both may already be off fantasy owner's boards. 
 
The greatest beneficiary of these upgrades in Oakland is Carr and he's an ideal late-round quarterback. He has three big-play receivers, two running backs with Pro Bowl ability, continuity and skill along the offensive line, and coach who has successfully integrated big-name players into balanced offenses and earned production. 
 
One of Gruden's greatest issues in Tampa Bay was picking or working with quarterbacks who didn't work out and injuries to high-round picks. Give him a capable talent under center and he can build around them.
 
Based on Carr's career production to date, if he performs to his ADP, fantasy owners still get production worth his asking price. Considering the upgrades, he'll be no worse than a solid value. 
 
As long as Carr and the offensive line stays healthy, the joke may be on fantasy owners who write off the Raiders too early.