The Oakland Raiders only kept five wide receivers on the 53-man roster, and that could prove problematic for the team in Week 1. Of the five young receivers that made the team, there is a possibility Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore and Juron Criner will not play or will be limited on Monday night against the San Diego Chargers.
Ford is battling back from an injury to the same foot that caused him to miss six games last season, and Moore has been nursing a hamstring since the very start of training camp. Criner has been limited in practice this week due to a sore ankle.
It’s a good thing Carson Palmer will be able to rely on his security blanket, Darrius Heyward-Bey, to do the heavy lifting in the passing game in Week 1 and beyond.
Heyward-Bey had a breakout year in 2011, with 64 receptions for 975 yards to go along with three 100-yard games. Far too many people assumed Moore would be the No. 1 target in Oakland, when the evidence may suggest Heyward-Bey was and will continue to be the go-to wide receiver.
Heyward-Bey can stretch the defense horizontally because he runs great routes and has learned how to use his speed to his advantage. Heyward-Bey can also beat press coverage, which is a skill necessary for Heyward-Bey, who lines up on the line of scrimmage and doesn’t get the added cushion that Moore is afforded on the opposite side.
The common criticism of Heyward-Bey is his hands, and although he may never look natural catching the ball, it’s hard to criticize the results. Heyward-Bey didn’t drop a lot of passes in 2011, and securing the catch and getting positive yardage is what the game is all about.
Fighting for the Deep Ball
Another criticism of Heyward-Bey has been his poor performance catching deep passes. According to ProFootballFocus, Heyward-Bey was targeted 22 times on deep passes last season and caught just three.
Heyward-Bey was simply not doing a good job finding and fighting for the ball when it was in the air in 2011, but Heyward-Bey has demonstrated improvement in training camp catching deep passes. The improvement translated into a game situation against Detroit in the third week of the preseason.
If Heyward-Bey has improved enough fighting and adjusting to the deep pass, he’ll be able to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically and will be extremely difficult for opposing defenses to handle.
Greg Knapp’s West Coast offense will emphasize Heyward-Bey’s ability to stretch the defense horizontally, but improvement catching the deep pass will make Heyward-Bey more dynamic and the offense that much more explosive, particularly when Moore is not in the lineup.
Speed, Strength and Routes
Heyward-Bey was hard to cover even when he wasn’t able to haul in deep passes. Heyward-Bey uses his speed to eat up the cushion the cornerback gives him, he uses his size and strength to beat press coverage and he’s smart enough to find soft spots in zone coverage.
Palmer also trusts Heyward-Bey to be in the right position and anticipates when he will get open. Throwing the ball late has been a problem for Palmer, but that has not been the case when he is throwing to Heyward-Bey.
Let’s take a look at a relatively simple third-down conversion from last season that demonstrates a few of Heyward-Bey's strengths.
The Raiders line up with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back. Heyward-Bey is at the bottom of the screen getting pressed by the cornerback.
Heyward-Bey gets under the arm of the cornerback and gains the advantage.
The cornerback has to make up for the half-step advantage Heyward-Bey gained at the line of scrimmage, which is tough to do with a receiver as fast as Heyward-Bey. As soon as the cornerback gets his momentum in one direction, Heyward-Bey sinks and breaks toward the sideline. Notice Palmer has already released the ball in anticipation of Heyward-Bey getting open.
The pass is a little short and low, but Heyward-Bey drops to his knees to secure the catch, which gave the Raiders a fresh set of downs.
It’s a good example of how a receiver like Heyward-Bey can use his ability to create a window for the quarterback to complete a pass. Every offense needs plays like this to keep the chains moving.
Statistics, Situation and Scheme
Heyward-Bey produced all 975 of his yards in his 14 starts. In total, Heyward-Bey produced 65.0 yards per game to Moore’s 47.5 yards per game. According to ProFootballFocus, Heyward-Bey was targeted 106 times (7.1 per game) and Moore was targeted 73 times (5.6 per game). Heyward-Bey also converted his targets into receptions with more frequency than Moore.
In 2011, Heyward-Bey was clearly Palmer’s No. 1 option, but that could have been because Moore missed three games and was otherwise limited when he returned. We may never know, but last year’s stats suggest Heyward-Bey was the go-to guy.
Unfortunately, stats don’t always tell the whole story, and sometimes, the situation and scheme dictate what players produce, but that doesn’t seem to support Moore becoming a No. 1 option, either.
Moore missed most of training camp and hasn’t had the opportunity to develop his game in the new offense, while Heyward-Bey has improved in the deep passing game. Heyward-Bey also fits the new offense, has chemistry with Palmer, is healthy and continues to improve.
Palmer leaned on Heyward-Bey last season and will do so again in Week 1 and beyond.