The running back spot will make for one of the more interesting position battles of the Oakland Raiders’ 2014 training camp.
With the upgrades in talent and size on the offensive line, it is no secret the Raiders will look to take after the those two perennial contenders and plan to run the ball in the upcoming season and beyond.
The Raiders’ final roster will have quite a bit of talent at the running back position to do so, but the candidates for the starting spot will come down to Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew.
First, the case of McFadden is well known by Raiders fans already.
When healthy, he can be one of the more explosive backs in the league, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
In his healthiest of seasons in 2010, when he started 13 of 16 games, McFadden ran for more than 1,100 yards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry and tallied seven touchdowns.
Add in his career-high numbers in the passing game of 47 receptions for 507 yards and another four touchdowns, and it seemed as though the Raiders had the kind of versatile running back that an offense could be built around.
Of course, the problem with that has been his inability to consistently stay on the field and take advantage of that potential.
A free agent this past offseason, the Raiders had a difficult decision to make on McFadden.
The injury issues had undoubtedly grown frustrating for both sides, and many assumed that the Raiders’ former first-round pick would be playing elsewhere in 2014.
However, that factor alone all but guaranteed a one-year “prove it” deal as the market value for McFadden wherever he landed. Why not Oakland?
Still just 26 years old, and certainly having less wear and tear than he could have with more career carries, he has plenty left to offer.
Being the team to give him that low-risk deal, hoping this will be the year he remains healthy throughout, the Raiders made the right choice.
McFadden now returns for a second season of the offense’s transition back to the gap-blocking scheme that best suites his abilities as a runner, and he will have a great opportunity to produce as a result.
That breakaway speed will be best utilized in space, where he can beat defenders to the edge and take any play for a big gain.
The Raiders remained patient in adding further competition to the roster for McFadden, eventually signing the three-time All Pro Jones-Drew after letting Rashad Jennings sign elsewhere in free agency.
Jones-Drew is of course the older of the two backs, but at 29 years old, he comes to the Raiders eager to prove that his career is long from over.
He is from the Bay Area, so the signing makes for a homecoming of sorts, but joining the Silver and Black was about more than that. In his free-agency experience, the Raiders were the lone team that guaranteed him the opportunity to compete.
Injury troubles over the past two seasons slowed that pace, but he began to return to form toward the end of the 2013 campaign.
Jones-Drew has a career average of 4.5 yards per carry and, like McFadden, can be a reliable contributor as a receiver out of the backfield as well.
Where he separates himself from most backs in the league—and quite possibly in this competition as well—is his ability in pass protection.
This, coupled with his vision as a ball-carrier and ability to run between the tackles, will give him the opportunity to contribute in a big way.
Overall, when it comes to this particular position battle, there may be no clear-cut winner after training camp, or even throughout the season entirely.
Realistically, that may just be the way the Raiders want it to play out.
In today’s NFL, teams run quite the risk depending on just one back to shoulder the load for an entire season.
While we do see offenses that have had success in doing so, establishing a capable backfield tandem and/or rotation is more often the better bet.
The running styles and abilities of McFadden and Jones-Drew complement each other well, and having somewhat of an even split in carries and overall snaps would go a long way toward keeping each other fresh throughout the season.
If one player has the edge at this point, due to his proven ability in pass protection, it is likely Jones-Drew.
However, we can expect the Raiders’ offensive staff to take advantage of each player’s individual skills as various situations call for them within a given game.
One may see a few more carries than the other in a particular week, but matchups and rotations should have it even out relatively soon after.
The key, as it will be throughout the rest of the Raiders’ roster, is competition.
The hope is that said competition here in the offensive backfield extends over the course of the season and brings out the best in both players.
If so, and if both can stay healthy throughout, the Raiders could have one of the better running back tandems in the NFL, and one that could carry the offense to the kind of successful season that will surprise many around the league.
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