Rashad Jennings Has Earned the Starting Job in Oakland

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Rashad Jennings Has Earned the Starting Job in Oakland
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Rashad Jennings has been a big surprise for the Oakland Raiders this season.

When the Oakland Raiders signed running back Rashad Jennings in the offseason, he was the logical backup to the oft-injured Darren McFadden. Being McFadden’s backup can be a rewarding job, as former Raiders Michael Bush and Mike Goodson can attest, but expectations were low for the former member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jennings was coming off a year in which he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, and Oakland’s offense theoretically depended on McFadden being productive. The Raiders junked the full-time use of the zone-blocking scheme in the offseason with the hope that it would jump-start McFadden—Jennings was just free-agent filler.

Except Jennings has done a lot more than fill the roster. Jennings is impressively holding down the starting job and fulfilling the promised production of McFadden for a fraction of the cost.  

Lost in all the talk about Oakland’s quarterback situation and what to do with head coach Dennis Allen is the fact that Jennings will be making his second start over a relatively healthy McFadden and his seventh this season. While this is an indictment of McFadden, it also has a lot to do with the production of Jennings.

Jennings has been the total package for the Raiders—a productive runner, receiver and blocker. Few running backs in the NFL are productive at all three and fit the description of an every-down player.

 

Rushing

Jennings is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 149 attempts, eighth among qualifying running backs and tied with Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller. Jennings is also tied for the longest run of the year by a running back, with an 80-yard rumble in Week 11 in which he ran right through safety D.J. Swearinger.

Because he’s not particularly elusive, Jennings has gotten his yards the hard way—by running through defenders. Jennings is averaging 2.90 yards after contact according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), which is sixth in the NFL.

Only Peterson and Chris Ivory have more carries than Jennings and average more yards per carry after contact. Over 34 percent of Jennings’ rushing yards have come after contact, more than both Peterson and Ivory.

Rashad Jennings 2013 Statistics
DYAR DVOA YPC YPC after Contact EPA/Play
Value 159 17.1% 4.6 2.9 0.3
Rank 4 2 8 6 24

FootballOutsiders.com, ProFootballFocus.com, advancednflstats.com

Even though he is considered a big running back at 6’1” and 231 pounds, you might say Jennings is the hardest-working running back in the NFL. The Raiders are lucky to have him because all that hard work is also helping them score points.

According to advancednflstats.com, Jennings’ expected points added (EPA) value per play is 0.3—identical to Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. There are running backs with higher EPA values, but only six have more carries than Jennings.

Football Outsiders has two advanced metrics, one called DVOA and another called DYAR. Per the site, DYAR means a running back with more total value, and DVOA means a running back with more value per play. Jennings is second only to DeMarco Murray in DVOA and is fourth behind Murray, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles in DYAR despite only getting significant work in eight games this season.

All this production despite having an offensive line that is pretty average blocking for the run per Football Outsiders or below-average according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required). It's pretty tough not to be impressed by the numbers, but he's even more fun to watch.

Also, Jennings also hasn’t fumbled this year, one of only four running backs averaging over 10 carries per games to do so. When the Raiders hand the ball to Jennings, they can be pretty confident he is going to hang on to the football and gain positive yards.

Any litmus test for a running back has to include production against defenses that are solid against the run. Jennings averaged 5.4 yards per carry against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, two teams that are only allowing opponents to rush for 3.8 yards per carry this season.

Just about every Jennings run this season has been impressive, from his vision to his consistent ability to run over opponents and fall forward. Take his eight-yard touchdown run against the aforementioned Eagles as an example.

Game Rewind

It’s tough to run in goal-line situations because the defense is compressed, but that’s just what the Raiders were able to do. The Eagles even had eight players in the box, but Jennings ran through arm tackles and over a safety and into the end zone.

Jennings does a good job of getting through the hole quickly. He ran right through an arm tackle of the linebacker and smartly protected the ball in the process. Jennings then lowered his shoulder and plowed right through a good form tackle by the safety, simultaneously slipping through the grasp of the late-arriving defender for the score.

The Raiders had just six players blocking eight defenders, and right guard Lucas Nix missed his block, creating a five-on-eight situation that should have benefited the Eagles. With good play design and Jennings, the Raiders were still able to have a productive run.

As it turns out, there is a reason other than quarterback Terrelle Pryor why the Raiders are the No. 3 rushing team in the league by yards per carry. Give offensive coordinator Greg Olson a lot of credit, but it certainly helps to have a guy like Jennings carrying the load.

 

Receiving

There are only two running backs in the league with more than 25 receptions and zero drops on the season, and Jennings is one of them. The other is Darren Sproles, one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL.

According to ProFootballFocus, Jennings has been targeted 33 times, and he’s caught 31 of them for 257 yards. Although on less than half of the receptions, Jennings’ 8.3 yards per catch is also about the same as Sproles' (8.4) and Danny Woodhead's (8.3).

Game Rewind

Against the New York Giants, Jennings plucked a low Pryor pass and took it 12 yards on 2nd-and-14.  Jennings made it look routine, but it’s actually one of the most difficult catches for a running back.

Jennings is running away from the pass and has to stop and reach out for the ball with the defense bearing down on him. Not only that, but Jennings is able to quickly tuck the ball away and make a cut to the outside to avoid a tackler.

If it wasn’t for the presence of Marcel Reece, the Raiders would probably use Jennings more in the passing game. As the above play shows, having Jennings still gives the Raiders some flexibility in situations where they might want extra receivers in the game.

 

Pass-Blocking

An underappreciated aspect of the running back position is the ability to protect the quarterback in the passing game. On most teams, the quarterback is the most important player on the field, and his health is pivotal to the team’s success.

It’s widely believed that Knowshon Moreno is the starting running back for the Denver Broncos for this reason. The last thing coaches want is a running back getting blown up and quarterback Peyton Manning getting hurt.

Jennings has been asked to pass protect a lot this season. According to ProFootballFocus, he’s stayed in to pass block 102 times, 10th most in the league. That’s also 35.7 percent of the passing plays when Jennings has been on the field, which is 11th highest in the league.

Pass-Blocking Comparison
Player Pass Pro Snaps Sacks Hits Hurries
Rashad Jennings 2013 102 0 1 7
Darren McFadden 2013 44 1 1 7
Rashad Jenning 2012 77 2 1 1
Darren McFadden 2012 76 2 4 3

ProFootballFocus.com

Despite being asked to block a lot, Jennings hasn’t allowed a sack, and he’s only allowed his quarterback to get hit just once per ProFootballFocus. By comparison, McFadden has struggled in pass protection and has allowed a sack and a quarterback hit on just 44 snaps in pass protection this season.

McFadden was also one of the worst in pass protection last year according to ProFootballFocus, ranking 59th out of 63 running backs in pass-blocking efficiency. That’s not good at all.

Although an ugly game for the Raiders, the game against the Kansas City Chiefs highlighted Jennings’ ability in pass protection. The Chiefs are currently seventh in the league in sack percentage and have a diverse pressure scheme that often rattled quarterback Matt McGloin.

Just because a lot goes wrong on a play doesn’t mean that every player on that particular play isn’t doing his job. For example, two of Oakland’s turnovers actually highlight Jennings’ ability in pass protection.

Game Rewind

On the first play, right guard Mike Brisiel is going whiff on his block and allows his man a free run at McGloin. The inside man is linebacker Derrick Johnson, the guy Jennings is going to block. Jennings does a good job of sliding over and getting enough of Johnson to take him out of the play.

Game Rewind

The second play was a fumbled snap. Even if we ignore the fumble, the Chiefs brought a blitz that confused Oakland’s front. Two defenders blitzed the B-gap, and Jennings' only option was to block the first one with a direct path up the middle.

Jennings does a great job, knocking Johnson off his path and away from where McGloin would have been if the snap had been good. Unfortunately for Jennings, both these examples were bad plays for the Raiders, and his work will go mostly unnoticed.

 

Outlook

Based on his play this season, Jennings deserves to be re-signed by the Raiders. If other teams are paying attention, he might also be a good consolation for a team that loses out on Ben Tate—especially a team that favors power and man-blocking techniques over the zone scheme.

Although 28, Jennings doesn’t have that many carries in his career— just 373—and he takes taking care of his body to the extreme. Jennings sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber and eats gluten-free, casein-free and organic foods, according to Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group.

Per Corkran, Jennings also stretches every night, does yoga, Pilates, acupuncture and more to help him stay healthy. Jennings must love living in the Bay Area, where healthy food and healthy activities are abundant.

Despite his healthy lifestyle, Jennings is a guy who has shown that he will abuse his body just to get that extra yard or two. Coaches love players like Jennings, and his effort hasn't gone unnoticed. 

For McFadden, whose contract expires at the end of the year, the writing is on the wall. He can’t stay healthy, and he hasn’t been productive in almost three years. Plus, Jennings is everything the Raiders hoped McFadden could be and more.

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