The Las Vegas Raiders had a strong start to the 2022 preseason with a 27-11 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Hall of Fame Game, but their victory came with some controversy. Some skeptics raised questions about running back Josh Jacobs’ workload, which fueled trade speculation.
In the postgame presser, Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels talked about his decision to give Jacobs and other running backs work during the preseason.
“I always think it's good for backs to carry the ball in the preseason. There's a lot of things that happen when you're getting tackled and hit that you can't simulate in practice. I think all our guys had the ball tonight. I think all our guys either caught it or were handed the ball and had to get tackled. We can't really simulate that or rep that in practice."
McDaniels’ explanation checks out with how his former team, the New England Patriots, used lead running back Damien Harris last preseason.
In the 2021 preseason, Harris recorded 14 rush attempts for 60 yards and a touchdown. He played in all three exhibition games. Jacobs took five carries for 30 yards last Thursday.
On Monday, McDaniels addressed the trade rumors around Jacobs with a definitive statement to reporters.
“JJ's a guy we know what he's done,” McDaniels said. “We have a lot of confidence in JJ. He did well with his opportunities. We have no desire to do [a trade] at all."
ProFootballTalk’s Josh Alper doesn’t quite buy into McDaniels' words at face value and suggests that Vegas may still deal its lead ball-carrier.
“As we’ve seen from teams that express no intention in trading a player before trading that player, things said publicly can disguise behind what the team is thinking about doing in private. The coming weeks will show whether that’s the case with the Raiders and Jacobs.”
Alper has a good point. We often hear about coaches who have no intent to trade a player only to deal him weeks or months later because of an enticing offer.
Why should we believe McDaniels? Because a deal that involves Jacobs wouldn’t make sense for a team that’s built to win now.
Last season, the Raiders’ rushing offense finished with the fifth-fewest yards and ranked 27th in yards per carry. Perhaps McDaniels wanted to help that unit build some confidence going into the upcoming campaign. Along with Jacobs, other potential offensive starters such as Alex Leatherwood, Lester Cotton Sr., Andre James, John Simpson and Brandon Parker also suited up for the Hall of Fame Game.
Sure, as a Pro Bowl player, Jacobs is more accomplished than the possible first-string offensive linemen who took the field with him. But to get a good look at the ground attack, the Raiders needed to see their running backs and offensive linemen mesh together, and that’s what they saw last week. Vegas’ tailbacks rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
Why would McDaniels trade his best running back, who’s racked up 1,065-plus rushing yards in two out of three seasons, after the club had an abysmal 2021 campaign on the ground? It doesn’t make sense with the current group in place.
While rookie fourth-rounder Zamir White looked crisp against the Jaguars, catching three passes for 23 yards in addition to 11 carries for 52 yards, he’s an unproven commodity. Kenyan Drake is coming off a fractured ankle from the previous campaign and only ran for nine yards on five carries in the exhibition game. Brandon Bolden hasn’t logged more than 63 carries in a single season. Rookie seventh-rounder Brittain Brown didn’t see any action against Jacksonville.
The Raiders have an assortment of running backs similar to what McDaniels had in New England with Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, Bolden and James White. They can feature Jacobs and White as the primary ball-carriers with Drake and Bolden in pass-catching roles.
Without Jacobs, the Raiders would have a shaky running back group that features a rookie (White), a veteran (Drake) who’s looking to rebound from an injury-riddled term with just 254 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and another veteran (Bolden) who’s not accustomed to carrying a heavy workload. Vegas needs its most accomplished ball-carrier at his best this year.
On one hand, we can connect the dots that indicate Jacobs may not have a long-term future in Vegas. The team’s new regime, led by general manager Dave Ziegler and McDaniels, didn’t pick up Jacobs’ fifth-year option and drafted his probable replacement in White.
On the flip side, as an offensive coordinator for the Patriots, McDaniels has typically used multiple running backs in his system, which diminishes the value of one player at the position. Though Jacobs is still a valuable part of the Raiders' ground attack, the front office likely made the decision to decline his $8 million fifth-year option to avoid a sizable financial hit at a position with a deep rotation.
Even in terms of contract value, Vegas should keep Jacobs.
Due to make $3.8 million in 2022, Jacobs is on a team-friendly deal when you consider his production through three seasons (3,839 yards and 28 touchdowns from scrimmage). Despite his numbers, he plays a highly disposable, low-premium position, which means the Raiders probably wouldn’t get much for him in a trade package. Maybe they’d receive a third-round pick, but that doesn’t match their perceived objective to win now.
If the Raiders dealt Jacobs, the move would contradict the reason for acquiring two-time All-Pro wideout Davante Adams, signing two-time All-Pro edge-rusher Chandler Jones and extending quarterback Derek Carr and wideout Hunter Renfrow. This isn’t a team that’s selling assets in rebuild mode.
Still the best player at his position on the roster, Jacobs is part of the Raiders’ push forward after a playoff appearance in 2021. Because he often deals with nicks and bruises, the depth at the position could help preserve him. The fourth-year pro has missed six career games.
Moreover, McDaniels may have wanted to see how Jacobs secured the ball in live action. That was something the Raiders head coach said the 24-year-old running back needed to work on, as The Athletic's Vic Tafur relayed in March.
Jacobs has lost five fumbles in 43 games, but he turned the ball over twice within three outings between Weeks 14 and 16 last season.
Instead of speculation that the Raiders showcased Jacobs, we should look at it as the team’s way to keep him sharp for the 2022 season.
With all the offseason buzz around the Raiders’ passing attack that will feature Carr, Adams, Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller, Jacobs can help balance the offense. He’s finished within the top nine in rushing yards and touchdowns for two out of three campaigns.
Fueled by extra motivation in a contract term, Jacobs could have one of his most efficient seasons as the featured running back in a backfield committee.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.