The Oakland Raiders signed so many veteran players this offseason that they are now one of the oldest teams in the league. Most of the veterans should still have a couple good years of football left in their bodies, except for maybe running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Jones-Drew was an unproductive runner last season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones-Drew, 28, averaged 3.4 yards per carry—more than a full yard less than his career average.
For an older running back, Jones-Drew’s production last year is a giant red flag. Older running backs usually hit a wall at some point around age 30 and then cease to be useful players.
If Jones-Drew doesn’t find more running room in Oakland, his career is probably over. The Raiders could also struggle to run the ball effectively if Jones-Drew can’t rebound.
History suggests Jones-Drew is going to have a tough time with the Raiders, but there are other indications that shed a more positive light on the situation. It’s very possible Jones-Drew’s lack of production was due to a combination of factors instead of just one.
If true, Jones-Drew’s 2013 season may not have been the result of hitting the wall that all running backs eventually do at some point around age 30. Even so, it’s still possible Jones-Drew could hit that wall in 2014, so the Raiders are taking a calculated risk.
Hitting the Wall
Running backs start to decline on average at age 26 according to research by Chase Stuart of footballperspective.com. The sharpest declines are from 31 to 32 and 33 to 34, but there is also a sizable drop from 28 to 29.
While this doesn’t prevent a player from rebounding from a bad season, it does suggest that it will be difficult. Only a slight increase in production from age 29 to 30 could buoy hopes that it’s possible.
|Running Backs with 243+ Carries & < 3.5 YPC at Age 28|
|Players||YPC at Age 28||YPC at Age 29||Career YPC|
|Maurice Jones Drew||3.4||?||4.5|
Only eight other running backs in the history of the league had 234 or more carries and averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry at age 28. Of those running backs, Franco Harris and Cedric Benson were the only two to average more than their career averages the following season.
Harris and Benson also had the highest averages of the eight players on the list at age 28. Neither player was particularly productive on a per carry basis throughout his career, with Harris averaging 4.1 yards per carry and Benson 3.8 yards per carry. Both Harris and Benson’s bad seasons also came in years in which they both had career highs in carries.
The good news is that players liked Edgerrin James and Eddie George turned things around after poor seasons at age 28. Both players were able to improve to within .2 yards per carry of their career averages at age 29.
The Circumstances in Jacksonville
Jones-Drew’s struggles last season coincided with the Jaguars' switch to the zone-blocking scheme. The Raiders are well aware of the pitfalls of converting to the zone-blocking scheme with two failed attempts to do so over the past decade.
Most recently, the zone-blocking scheme gave running back Darren McFadden fits and forced the Raiders to toss it after a disastrous 2012. The offensive line also struggled to learn the scheme, and that may have contributed to McFadden’s struggles.
For the first seven years of his career, Jones-Drew was accustomed to the more traditional man-blocking scheme. Even for a quality player like Jones-Drew, there are going to be growing pains, and the Jaguars temporarily ditched zone-blocking plays at times.
Jones-Drew was also less than a year removed from Lisfranc surgery on his foot, something with which McFadden and the Raiders are also familiar. Last season, Jones-Drew also battled a tendon sprain in his ankle, as well as knee and hamstring injuries.
Injuries are not an excuse for lack of production, but we also can’t pretend they don’t have an impact. The Jaguars had no reason to be cautious with Jones-Drew. If he was more hurt than we knew, it would make sense why his production wasn’t as good as normal.
|PFF Team Run-blocking Grade vs. Top RB YPC|
|Tean||Year||Team Run-Block Grade||Top RB YPC|
The bigger issue was probably the blocking Jones-Drew received last season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Jaguars were the worst team blocking for the run in 2013. In addition, the Jaguars were the worst at run blocking of any team the site has graded in the last seven years by a wide margin.
In one of Jones-Drew’s worst games of the year against the Indianapolis Colts, he didn’t have a rush longer than six yards. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was Jones-Drew’s fault.
The Jaguars routinely had problems getting any push in the run game. Here’s one example on a 2nd-and-6 in which only one offensive lineman is able to move beyond the original line of scrimmage. Obviously, Jones-Drew was stuffed for no gain.
If Jones-Drew gets better blocking in a scheme he is more familiar with, he could easily find more running lanes. Although he had just 86 carries in 2012, Jones-Drew was averaging 4.8 yards per carry for a coaching staff that included Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.
One of the big focuses for the Raiders this offseason has been rebuilding the offensive line. The Raiders signed Austin Howard to a lucrative contract offer to play offensive guard as well as offensive guard Kevin Boothe and left tackle Donald Penn.
In 2013, the Raiders did a decent job run blocking but also let opposing teams stuff them in the backfield too often with a team Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade that was still one of the worst in the league. Despite the production last season, running back Rashad Jennings was able overcome bad blocking to average 4.5 yards per carry and 2.8 yards per carry after contact according to Pro Football Focus.
|Year||Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle|
|2013||Khalif Barnes||Lucas Nix||Stefen Wisniewski||Mike Brisiel||Tony Pashos|
|PFF Run Block Grade||-24.4||-20.9||+5.2||-2.5||-8.9|
|2014 (Projected)||Donald Penn||Kevin Boothe||Stefen Wisniewski||Austin Howard||Menelik Watson|
|PFF Run Block Grade (2013)||+4.4||-12.5||+5.2||-10.2||-3.9|
Jennings averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and 1.9 yards per carry after contact for the Jaguars in 2012, so a running back coming to Oakland from Jacksonville to perform is not unheard of. The difference with Jones-Drew is that he is much older, but he should still be able to find more holes behind a revamped offensive line using a man-blocking system.
Maybe it won’t work for the Raiders or for Jones-Drew, but there’s legitimate reason to think he could have a productive season in 2013. Jones-Drew may lack game-breaking speed at this stage of his career, but he can also share the work with McFadden or Latavius Murray.
The Raiders are taking a calculated risk with Jones-Drew. Based on general manager Reggie McKenzie’s ability to find productive backs other than McFadden over the last couple of years, signing Jones-Drew is a move that bears watching closely.