The Oakland Raiders made a point to give quarterback Derek Carr weapons this offseason. General manager Reggie McKenzie added wide receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Roy Helu Jr. and running back Trent Richardson in free agency and then used the No. 4 overall pick on wide receiver Amari Cooper.
It’s not hard to envision an offensive revival for the Raiders starting with Carr and Cooper, but it’s just as possible that tight end Clive Walford, the Raiders' third-round pick, could actually be the central figure. Walford could become Carr’s security blanket on third down, which he desperately needed in 2014, and his favorite target in the red zone.
NFL.com compared Walford to Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, who figured prominently in Andrew Luck’s rookie campaign. Walford is like Allen in that he can catch passes and block, so he’ll always be on the field.
|Raiders' Offensive Ranks 2014|
|Plays Per Drive||5.1||31|
|Yards Per Drive||22.6||32|
|Points Per Drive||1.21||31|
|Yards Per Carry||3.7||27|
|Rush Yards Per Game||77.5||32|
Last season, the Raiders struggled to sustain drives. Only the Tennessee Titans averaged fewer than the Raiders’ 5.1 plays per drive, but no team averaged fewer than their paltry 22.6 yards per drive. As a result, they averaged just 1.21 points per drive—the second worst total in the league.
Part of the reason this happened was because the Raiders averaged 3.7 yards per carry on the ground. The Raiders’ 77.5 rushing yards per game was the worst in the league and they routinely faced 3rd-and-long situations as a result.
Walford can block on first and second down so the Raiders will have manageable third downs. When the Raiders get to third down, he can be a reliable option for Carr in the passing game that he didn’t have last year.
|Raiders' Third Down/Red Zone Stats 2014|
|Third Down Conversion %||33.8||28||237||1|
|Red Zone 1st Down/Touchdown %||36.0||1||89||31|
Tight end Mychal Rivera and now former wide receiver James Jones were among the league leaders in targets on third down last season, but the Raiders converted just 33.8 percent of their third-down attempts, which ranked 28th in the entire league. They just weren’t getting enough yards even when they caught Carr’s passes, so the Raiders replaced Jones with Cooper and Walford will steal many of Rivera’s opportunities in 2015.
Walford should draw coverage from linebackers and see plenty of targets as teams focus on Cooper, Crabtree and Rod Streater. That should mean more space to operate and gain yards after the catch.
One area where the Raiders didn’t struggle last year was in the red zone as they were the most efficient red-zone offense in the league, but they made just 23 total trips. As they start sustaining drives and the offense improves, the Raiders will get more opportunities in the red zone.
That’s great news for Walford if Carr can carry over most of his red-zone proficiency from a year ago. Walford could become quite a weapon at 6’4” and 251 pounds because he the kind of big target that NFL offenses love in the red zone. His 34” arms, 10 1/4” hands and a 35” vertical translate into a huge catch radius and he also has a big body to box out smaller defenders.
Walford’s size and length made him incredibly productive in college. Last season, he caught seven touchdowns and broke the Miami school record for most receptions by a tight end. According to Pro Football Focus, Walford finished first in yards per route run, yards per route run against “Power 5” teams and yards per route run from the slot.
|Walford Advanced Stats|
|Yards Per Route Run (YPRR)||3.26||1|
|YPRR vs. Power 5 Teams||3.38||1|
|YPRR from Slot||3.35||1|
|Pro Football Focus|
The advanced stats suggest Walford should have been the consensus top tight end in the draft, but he went 13 picks after Maxx Williams out of the University of Minnesota. The Raiders may have been lucky that the Baltimore Ravens moved up to get Williams, as their Plan B option could have been Walford.
Obviously, Cooper is still going to figure heavily into Oakland’s offense, but he’ll be sharing some targets with Streater and Crabtree. Cooper also won’t be assisting the Raiders in the run game or pass protection very much, nor does he have the ideal size to be a red-zone weapon like Walford.
If the Raiders are going to have a decent offense in 2015, they are going to have to run the ball better, they are going to need big plays from Cooper and they are going to need Walford to help them keep the chains moving and to catch touchdowns when they get to the red zone.
Blocking, third-down conversion percentage and red-zone scoring are obviously very important elements, so Walford could be a key cog in Oakland’s offensive revival. Outside of Carr and potentially Cooper, Walford’s performance could have the greatest impact on the Raiders offense in 2015.