Who Will Be the Oakland Raiders' Most Improved Player in 2015?

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 15:  Trent Richardson #34 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the NFL game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 15, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A successful season for the Oakland Raiders must be spearheaded by a blend of rookies, sophomores and transitional players.

According to ESPN reporter Bill Williamson, the Raiders have signed a league-high 10 players via free agency. Furthermore, Oakland still has some vital roster spots to fill headed into the draft, specifically at wide receiver, defensive end and guard.

As for the players currently on the roster, Trent Richardson has the highest potential for a breakout season.

Ironically, at a time running backs are said to be devalued and players like Steven Jackson are lobbying to "save the running back," per USAtoday.com writer Nina Mandell, the Raiders could receive a powerful boost from an RB that has been labeled a bust thus far.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  Trent Richardson (R) from Alabama holds up a jersey as he stands on stage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was selected #3 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft at Radio City Music H
Al Bello/Getty Images

As the last RB drafted in the overall top five, Richardson’s struggles have been magnified and rightfully so. It’s not often a team gives up on an overall No. 3 pick that was brought in to rejuvenate the offense.

Richardson’s second stop with the Indianapolis Colts didn’t end well either. The two sides parted ways in the offseason, sending Richardson to the free-agent market. According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Richardson felt he just didn’t fit in with the direction of the organization:

"Me and the GM didn’t see eye to eye. My next step, I’ll be the starter. Indy didn’t fit me,” Richardson said.

Richardson acknowledged that he was fined repeatedly for being overweight, although he says he was only three pounds heavier than the 227 pounds the Colts asked him to weigh.

"I was continually fined for being 230 pounds,” Richardson said.

The Colts failed to accentuate Richardson's skill set. The Raiders should look to capitalize by handling the RB a little differently.

Feed the Big Running Back

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 18:  Eddie Lacy #27 of the Green Bay Packers carries the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during the 2015 NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field on January 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“T-Rich” is a bigger RB who needs volume in his workload to be effective. He’s not LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles; he’s not going to break out on the edge and streak 40-50 yards down the field. He’s a bruising type of RB who'll drag defenders three to five yards on his back en route to a first down or the end zone.

The Colts underutilized the former No. 3 overall pick in about half of their games. In 16 out of 29 games, Richardson registered less than 10 carries. He had 20-plus carries in only three games in two seasons with Indianapolis. This is mind-blowing when considering the Colts surrendered a first-round pick to acquire him.

Weight issues likely contributed to the lack of carries, but the Raiders could use his stature to their advantage by feeding him the ball, especially at the goal line. Bigger RBs need carries to make an impact. They often wear down a defense with physicality, making it difficult to handle late in the game. Players like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch have the same roughhouse running style that shreds the heart of defenses late in the fourth quarter.

Lynch and Peterson are currently two of the best RBs in the NFL, Richardson isn’t top-tier, but let’s compare him to his former Alabama teammate Eddie Lacy.

Lacy is also a larger RB weighing more than 230 pounds. In a two-year span, Lacy has 13 games with 20 carries or more. The Packers understand the bigger RB needs a consistent volume of touches to affect the game. Lacy has 284 and 246 rush attempts in his two seasons in Green Bay.

Richardson had 316 rush attempts in two seasons combined with the Colts. In his only productive year, his rookie year, he had 267 carries and was 50 yards shy of breaking 1,000 rushing yards. He can be very productive if the Raiders commit to implementing a hard-nose rushing attack. The approach would also limit division rival quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers on offense.

Implement Run-Blocking-Friendly Offensive Line

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

Unless you have Peterson or Lynch in the backfield, an RB needs clever run-blocking schemes and a solid offensive line to flourish.

This year, three of the top five RBs belong to teams with top-notch run-blocking offensive lines:

Top Five Running Backs By Yards
PlayerYardsRankTeamTeam Run-Block Rating
DeMarco Murray1,8451stDallas Cowboys2nd
LeSean McCoy1,3193rdPhiladelphia Eagles1st
Justin Forsett1,2665thBaltimore Ravens4th
Pro Football Focus

In Richardson’s rookie year, he ran behind the Cleveland Browns offensive line that recorded a 32.3 run-blocking rating per Pro Football Focus. The Colts employed a dreadful offensive line for two consecutive seasons with Richardson, registering ratings of minus-17.7 in 2013 and minus-7.7 in 2014.

Richardson may have been lackadaisical with his weight, but Indianapolis didn’t do any favors for him with poor run-blocking schemes.

The Raiders have made changes to revamp their offensive line, adding Rodney Hudson, shifting Austin Howard to right tackle and continuing to develop Gabe Jackson. Not to mention Donald Penn was a top-10 tackle in 2014.

General manager Reggie McKenzie will likely select a guard early in the draft to bolster the offensive line. Oakland should be able to win matchups in the trenches, which bodes well for Richardson’s rejuvenation.

Open Competition and Opportunity

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28:  Running back Latavius Murray #28 of the Oakland Raiders rushes against the Denver Broncos during a game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Richardson will have the opportunity and an upper hand in ascending the RB depth chart.

According to Williamson, Latavius Murray and Richardson will compete for the starting job—and if Richardson works hard in the offseason, he’ll be rewarded.

The coaching staff would like to see progress in Murray’s football IQ before he can earn the starting tailback position per Williamson:

Del Rio said the young, promising running back has earned the right to compete for the starting job but won't yet anoint him. In the most interesting comments of the session, Del Rio said Murray needs to work on his football awareness and football IQ to enhance his tremendous skills. Del Rio said the staff can help Murray get to where they want him to be. 

There were rumblings that the previous coaching staff was not satisfied with Murray's readiness. Let's face it: There was a reason why Murray didn't get a chance to play until the second half of the season, with the Raiders still winless. The fact that Del Rio has acknowledged it is interesting. This is almost entirely a new staff, so it's clear this is also the sense the new coaches have gathered. 

It doesn’t seem as though Richardson enters an uphill battle as initially thought. Murray is still unproven and could see himself in a timeshare role that favors his new teammate. Richardson has the experience and the burning desire to succeed despite being bounced around among three teams in four years.

Del Rio will have a fierce competition at RB, a competition Richardson will likely win if he remains focused as he expects to start Week 1 of the 2015 season.

McKenzie takes a lot of notes from his former organization in Green Bay—he should take note on how the coaching staff utilizes their standout Alabama product in the backfield.

It’s a copycat league, and Richardson could find his stride in Oakland. McKenzie and Del Rio should find a way to incorporate an exceptional talent like Richardson into a balanced offense. 

Here's one final look at Richardson's journey before arriving in Oakland. This highlight reel could also serve as a glimpse of the type of player he could be going forward—an extraordinary tackle-breaking, touchdown-scoring machine.

Do you have any thoughts on Trent Richardson's fit in Oakland? Are you skeptical? Is Latavius Murray the better running back? Who has the early upper hand in this RB competition? You can tweet your thoughts to Maurice's twitter and he'll tell you why "T-Rich" is bound to flourish in Oakland. 

Advanced statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference and Pro Football Focus.

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