For the third year in a row, the Raiders have a rookie receiver making noise. Last season, Denarius Moore was being compared to 2010 rookie Jacoby Ford. Now, Arizona product Juron Criner has the NFL wondering if the Raiders did it again.
Criner was the talk of organized team activities and minicamp after making several acrobatic plays. He's not your typical Raiders' speed demon at receiver, but for his size, he's quick. Outside of the buzz he's generated this offseason, Criner, Moore and Ford are about as different physically as they could be, considering they all play the same position.
Despite coming in a different size package, Criner could be the next late-round rookie to make an impact with the Raiders. Although Criner shares situational similarities to Moore and Ford, he might actually compare more favorably to another receiver drafted by Reggie McKenzie—Jordy Nelson.
Criner and Nelson share more physical similarities than many realize. They're both 6'3", about 200 pounds, ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.5-second range and averaged about 13 yards per catch in college. The Raiders would certainly love to have a Jordy Nelson, but it's worth noting that it took three years before Nelson had his breakout season.
Coincidentally, Moore and Nelson had the same number of receptions in their rookie seasons. There's no reason Criner couldn't produce similar results his rookie season, but no one should expect numbers approaching that of Nelson's 2011 season or the type of yardage Moore produced as a rookie in Hue Jackson's vertical attack.
Criner's challenge will be opportunity, as he's buried beneath Darrius Heyward-Bey, Moore and Ford on the Raiders' depth chart. It's difficult to produce without the opportunity. In 2011, despite a stellar training camp, Moore didn't get his opportunity until Ford was injured, but he made the most of it and was the starter the rest of the way.
Is Juron Criner the next Denarius Moore?
Particularly troubling is that he's best suited for the position currently held by Heyward-Bey—the Raiders' leading receiver from a year ago. Heyward-Bey has built a strong relationship with Carson Palmer and is likely to remain the starter as long as he's healthy.
To get Criner on the field, the Raiders might consider using him in the slot in place of Ford on third downs and getting him on the field in red-zone passing situations, so he can use his height, hands and vertical leap to haul in jump balls.
If Criner can be more consistent than Moore was his rookie year, he could easily catch just as many passes by playing in only half the offensive snaps. While Moore was given the starting job, it's possible to produce the same type of numbers as a situational player.
It seems like a long shot that the Raiders would have a passing attack that featured four receivers with run-centric offensive coordinator Greg Knapp running things in Oakland, but taking a closer look at Knapp's track record reveals something interesting.
The last time he was offensive coordinator in 2009 with the Seahawks, the team actually led the league in pass attempts and spread the ball around to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and Deon Butler.
There exists a blueprint for using Criner without needing to bench Moore and Heyward-Bey. Nelson started only two games during his rookie reason but produced 33 receptions and two touchdowns. According to ProFootballFocus, Nelson played in 48.9 percent of the offensive snaps. That's in line with the amount of snaps Moore received in Week 1 as the third option last season.
The greatest impact would be on Ford; he wouldn't be likely to see more than the 38.8 percent of the snaps he received in 2011. That could ultimately be a good thing for Ford as the Raiders would have him for kick and potentially also punt returns. Unlike Ford and Moore, Criner might not need a starter to go down with injury to be the next late-round receiver to have a great rookie season.