Most fans will look at the Oakland Raiders defense for rising young stars like Khalil Mack. But the Silver and Black have intriguing second-year running back Latavius Murray, who could make their offensive attack the most promising part of Oakland’s journey back to NFL relevance.
Murray will become a breakout star for the Raiders if they just give him the opportunity.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, Murray was a terrifying combination of size (6’3”, 230 lbs) and speed (ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his pro day) as a runner for the University of Central Florida. In his career with the Golden Knights, Murray totaled 37 rushing touchdowns and was selected to the 2012 All-Conference USA First Team. On all 407 carries in his college career, he never lost a fumble, according to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post.
But Murray’s game isn’t just about being big, fast and never losing a fumble.
Murray can contribute as a receiver and blocker as well. He caught 50 balls for 524 yards during his college career and was an effective lead blocker for quicker backs. All of his talents are on display in this video versus Marshall in 2012:
In this game, Murray filled up the stat sheet with 16 carries for 156 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder. Additionally, he had a receiving touchdown and made an excellent block at 5:06 in the video for the half back.
Whenever Marshall got early penetration, Murray couldn’t do much to get out of those situations. But whenever his offensive line got a good initial push, Murray was able to get up to full speed. A 230-pound back who runs a 4.38 40 is not easy to bring down, and he made that evident throughout the Marshall game.
However, that talent hasn’t immediately transferred over to the professional game.
Murray essentially had a redshirt rookie season. An ankle injury made him ineffective throughout training camp, and that same injury forced the Raiders to place him on injured reserve at the end of August. The only action he saw was in Oakland’s first preseason game, where he rushed for 29 yards on eight carries.
Now healthy, Murray will become a featured weapon in a Raiders offense that needs all the help it can get. But first things first—he has to gain the trust of his coaching staff and climb up the depth chart.
The additions of Maurice Jones-Drew and CFL star Kory Sheets, along with the re-signing of Darren McFadden, make the Raiders backfield a crowded place to be. It might even mean the Raiders aren’t expecting much from Murray this season.
Yet, offensive coordinator Greg Olson does realize Murray’s vast potential. According to Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com, Olson said that Murray has the biggest upside out of the running back group. Whether that statement is just empty training camp chatter or a legitimate feeling is unknown.
Whatever Olson and the Raiders think about Murray, it won’t matter if he is the only healthy, not-over-the-hill running back on the roster in October.
Jones-Drew carried the Jacksonville Jaguars offense on his back for years, but his last year with the team showed a sharp decline in ability. He averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 234 carries in 2013 and turned 29 in March. A return to his 2011 form is highly unlikely, even with a better offensive line than he had in Jacksonville. He’s still a decent receiver out of the backfield, but at this stage in his career, he’d be best as a goal-line and 4th-and-1 back.
McFadden’s injury history is notorious and frustrating for such a gifted runner. He has never played more than 13 games in a season. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 114 carries last season.
If Sheets can withstand the jump from the CFL to the NFL, he will most often be split out wide or in motion, according to Oakland Tribune beat writer Jerry McDonald. That’s a role for a third-down back, not a featured runner.
Out of all the running backs on Oakland’s roster, Murray has the best combination of youth, durability and talent. His fresh legs and tantalizing ability will look very appealing to the Raiders once Jones-Drew is worn down, McFadden is day-to-day and Sheets isn’t standing out.
Davis Mattek of RotoViz says that even if Jones-Drew and McFadden are healthy, Murray could lead the backfield in touches “due to sheer ability.”
At full strength, Murray is a special runner. Once Oakland gives him the opportunity to start, he will make the Raiders offense finally worth talking about.
One of the most important indicators for player success is the situation that the player will be in. Murray is certainly in a good situation to get carries and pile up stats. With the declining Matt Schaub at quarterback and few receiving options to buoy him, Oakland will be running the ball with vigor whenever it's in a close game.
The Raiders offseason moves indicate as such, as they beefed up on the offensive line. Donald Penn, Gabe Jackson, Austin Howard and the failed attempt to get Rodger Saffold from St. Louis shows Oakland’s desire to control the game up front. The Raiders line isn’t on par with San Francisco or Minnesota, but it’s a much more stable situation than it was last season.
That should make Murray very happy.
Although the running back has virtually no real NFL experience, his game compares favorably to Dallas Cowboys runner DeMarco Murray. They’re both big, tall targets. They can catch out of the backfield. They seek contact at the second level. They won’t do much when there is immediate interior penetration. They take a while to get up to full speed. When they do, it’s not easy to bring them down.
So Murray isn’t a flawless runner—he shares just as many weaknesses with DeMarco Murray as he does strengths. However, the Raiders personnel and offensive philosophy should mask most of his glaring issues. Due to the beef up front, drive blocking should be commonplace, and Murray won’t have to worry about many clogs at the line of scrimmage. This means he will be getting up to his terrifying freight-train speed more often than he would in, say, Atlanta.
That’s the type of situation Murray will thrive in and, just as important, a situation he knows he will thrive in. Murray has a good grip on his strengths and weaknesses, as indicated by what he said to Eddie Paskal of the team's website.
“The only thing I can do is continue to be the back that I have been, and that’s just running downhill, getting tough yards in between tackles and, when I can get outside, use my speed that I’m blessed with, and anything else they ask me as far as special teams,” he said.
Murray might not break 1,000 yards this season, but that’s due to the circumstance of being buried behind veterans in training camp rather than his ability. By Week 6, when the regular-season grind really starts kicking in, Jones-Drew and McFadden will be sore and hobbled. Dennis Allen will be forced to take a gamble on Murray whether he feels confident with it or not.
That decision will be the start of a 6’3” running back with 4.38 wheels trucking through linebackers and outrunning safeties. That’s the sound of a red-zone staple, but also the sound of Oakland’s offense becoming a point of interest after years of mediocrity.