New faces in new places: Raiders hope return of Jon Gruden will spark resurgence

Derek Carr (4) and the rest of the offense needs to master Jon Gruden’s playbook. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

There are seven new head coaches in place this offseason, and six of them are bringing new offensive coordinators with them. That means new concepts and playbooks and, most importantly in the fantasy world, opportunities for offensive skill position players. New coaches provide plenty of food for thought as the season approaches, and how their players fit in their systems goes a long way toward making a successful team. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the most intriguing players/new coach tandems who hope to take advantage of new roles in 2018.

Just under a decade ago, Jon Gruden went through one of the most unceremonious endings in coaching. He had earned a multiyear contract extension in early 2008 and had his Buccaneers in prime position for their second-straight playoff appearance heading into December. Then Tampa Bay lost four straight, Gruden was fired, and one of the most promising young coaches was out of a job.

Gruden never went far from football, though. A film junkie, he called Monday Night Football games and opened Jon Gruden’s QB Camp, a show that dissected the tendencies of top college quarterbacks in the lead-up to the NFL draft. Now Gruden’s taking his obsession with the sport — and especially with the quarterback position — back to the Oakland Raiders, a team looking to get their signal-caller, Derek Carr, back on track. How Carr and Gruden mesh and how Gruden adjusts to today’s NFL will be key factors in how the Raiders respond following a disappointing 2017.

Derek Carr refines his deep ball with Greg Olson and Jordy Nelson

Getting Carr back to his 2016 self is undoubtedly the most important part of the Raiders contending. That means new offensive coordinator Greg Olson — not to be confused with Panthers tight end Greg Olsen — has a very important job ahead of him in his first season in Oakland.

Olson has a long history as both a quarterbacks coach and an offensive coordinator across several different stops around the league, but his work in Los Angeles last year was perhaps his most impressive. He turned Jared Goff from an uninspiring rookie to the leader of one of the NFL’s best offenses, thanks to massive improvements in his deep ball.

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Carr needs those same improvements. In 2016, when the Raiders went 12-4, Carr was ninth in the league with a deep ball completion percentage of 41. Last year, he was 27th, completing just 29 percent of his deep balls, per Player Profiler.

With Olson as his coach and Jordy Nelson as a newly-acquired deep threat, the Raiders should be better going deep in 2018. That means even if Carr isn’t quite his 2016 self (10th among quarterbacks), he’ll be better than his injured 2017 self (22nd).

Will the real Amari Cooper please stand up?

Cooper burst on the scene in 2015 and improved in 2016. Then he fell way off in 2017. His 10 drops were fifth-most in the league, and he barely cracked the top 100 in catch rate, per Player Profiler.

But when you listen to Gruden, he sings Cooper’s praises, compares him to Hall-of-Famer Tim Brown and insists that the fourth-year pro will be the “main vein” of the team’s offensive attack. And you can see the reasons why: He just turned 24, he has terrific top-end speed, and he’s 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds. Still, he’s incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis — he was the second-most volatile fantasy wide receiver last year — and even on a down-to-down basis, too.

Here’s where Cooper could benefit: As long as he does actually catch the ball, he’s terrific with it in his hands. In 2016 he recorded the fifth-most YAC in the league, and he was 17th last season even in a down year. He has always been very good after the catch, and considering Gruden’s offense will be less vertical than previous Raiders’ attacks, that could stand to benefit the University of Alabama product.

There are two camps regarding Cooper: one that excuses Cooper for a subpar 2017 and one that completely writes him off because of it. Cooper’s currently being drafted in the mid-fourth round, and if he falls any lower than that in your draft, he’s a worthy pickup as a heavy-target WR2 looking for a big bounce-back under a new coach who believes in him.

What does the running back room look like?

Gruden created some uproar when he said he’d be taking football back to 1998, re-signed a blocking tight end, signed another blocking tight end and added a fullback to boot. He backed off the comment somewhat, but it’s worth noting that his past tendencies mean the Silver-and-Black will pound the ball. In his 14 years of either coaching or coordinating, his teams have finished in the top-half of the league in rushing attempts nine times and top-10 six times. Of course, he’s also had two bottom-five instances, too. But given the personnel moves he’s made, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Gruden to make running the ball a priority.

Marshawn Lynch is still a Raider, and Gruden added free agent Doug Martin as well. It’s worth tracking what both players do going forward: Lynch, 32, is coming off a season in which he posted 4.3 yards per carry, third-best of his career. Gruden wants him to be his workhorse, but that’s a lot to ask for a 32-year old. Martin, meanwhile, hasn’t topped 2.9 yards per tote since 2015, but has impressed thus far, and Gruden is a fan.

The opportunity will certainly be there for whoever wins the starting job, if there’s a battle to be had. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard could be battling for third-down duties. Regardless of who gets the carries, if Oakland really commits to the run like it seems it will, there’s value to be had in the Raider backfield.

Other New faces in new places:
Coaching changes could get Marcus Mariota back on track
Aaron Rodgers welcomes back old friend
Norv Turner brings deep-dropback passing attack to Carolina

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