By Rick Drummond, Profootballfocus.com (on twitter: @PFF_Rick)
Remember 2003? That was the last time we found ourselves looking out to either side of Raider formations to see Tim Brown and Jerry Rice taking their positions, surveying coverage, itching to shred that zone or shake that man. Washing over you was a feeling you felt so many times during the seasons leading to that one – the sense that no matter who they were facing, our guys just couldn’t be covered. The Raider passing attack in those days was just that, an attack. A well-planned, well-executed, diverse, and determined attack. 2003, however, was when the wheels came off.
Since then, our gazes out to the edge have been greeted by visions of Javon Walker, Ashley Lelie, Jerry Porter, Ronald Curry, Randy Moss, Doug Gabriel, almost Drew Carter … and the current crop.
Of course, there were hopeful moments along the way (really, there were) and we should force upon ourselves more realistic expectations than ever again fielding a pair of hall of famers, but regardless, the difference between that time and the years since has been painful.
With the garbage finally cleared away and a few years put into rebuilding this unit through the draft, the Raiders can now say that they have a young and speedy stable assembled. What they’re unable to say is they have a clear number one … or even that they are only missing a number one. Today’s group does have talent and, yes, they’ve been thrilling at times, but, as a whole, they seem fragile. Not fragile in the injury-waiting-to-happen sense (outside of Schilens of course), but rather in the there-is-no-foundation-here sense.
All six current raider receivers have entered the league in the last four years – four of them in the last two – so it’s understandable that they would be lacking a foothold in the imaginations of Raider fans. They’ve established no consistently positive identity. Louis Murphy can point to theSan Diego and Pittsburgh games in 2009. Jacoby Ford had a handful of outings in 2010 to shout about. Darrius Heyward-Bey has had two games in his 25 starts where he produced like a legit threat. All scattered flashes.
There are, of course, contributing factors to their nearly impact-less existence that must be noted … questionable quarterback play, coaching and system changes, playing from behind quite often, etc. But, given that, these young professionals must develop and must do so rapidly if they are the ones to end the Raider receiver drought.
The 2010 Raiders receivers:
Experience: 2 seasons
Signed through: Resigned for 2011. (Was an exclusive rights free agent)
2010 receiving: 0 starts, 52 snaps (29 run plays / 23 pass plays), 4 targets / 3 receptions, 40 yards / 13.3 YPR, 3 yards after catch / 1.0 avg YAC, 0 touchdowns, 1 drop
2010 rushing: none
2010 returning: 35 punt returns, 7.3 yards per return, 0 touchdowns; 2 kickoff returns, 18.5 yards per return, 0 touchdowns
PFF grades: overall -0.5, receiving -0.3
The staff saw something in Miller in 2009, opting to keep him around despite a preseason injury. He made the cut again in 2010 and eventually got some game action as a receiver (52 snaps in a 4-game, mid-season stretch.) He was also given an opportunity to compete for the punt returner spot, a job he held for nine weeks.
Miller is easy to root for – an effort guy, small in stature, big in heart – but he didn’t show enough as a returner to clearly lock down the role and, though gutsy as a receiver, he’ll have a tough time climbing the ranks with a better version of him (Ford) already many steps ahead.
Johnnie Lee Higgins
Experience: 4 seasons
Signed through: FREE AGENT in 2011
2010 receiving: 1 start, 375 snaps (122 run plays / 253 pass plays), 25 targets / 10 receptions, 103 yards / 10.3 YPR, 21 yards after catch / 2.1 avg YAC, 0 touchdowns, 1 drop
2010 rushing: none
2010 returning: 17 punt returns, 7.2 yards per return, 0 touchdowns
PFF grades: overall -6.4, receiving -6.6
Higgins’ last three seasons as a receiver have been a gradual slide down from a starting point that wasn’t very high to begin with. Never the threat the Raiders hoped he would be, the ‘old man’ of this group has seen the newer, shinier toys pass him by. With just 10 catches in 2010 and only 25 targets in 253 passing plays, he wasn’t a viable contributor to the offense.
The regression also hit his return game. After breaking out in 2008 with 3 punt return touchdowns and a 13.5 yards per return average, he has slipped to just six yards per return in the two seasons since. He lost kickoff return duties in 2008 and lost punt returns this season.
Higgins just doesn’t bring anything to the table now and his roster spot will likely be handed to a new Raider for 2011.
Experience: 3 seasons
Signed through: 2011
2010 receiving: 0 starts, 81 snaps (38 run plays / 43 pass plays), 9 targets / 5 receptions, 40 yards / 8.0 YPR, 14 yards after catch / 2.8 avg YAC, 1 touchdown, 0 drops
2010 rushing: none
PFF grades: overall +1.1, receiving +0.6
There’s no questioning that Schilens, the 6’ 4” 210 pound, former seventh round pick offers a unique and much-needed build to this unit. His comparatively large frame would provide balance, helping to diversify game plan options – if he were able to take the field regularly. Unfortunately for him and for the Raiders, he has only seen significant time in 10 games over the past two seasons.
In those 10 games, he has caught 60% of the balls thrown his way – a rate well ahead of the rest of the group. He can work under and across, gain position, and catch the ball. All great traits, but all undermined by his injury history.
His 2011 contract year will be big. Another injury and he’s surely done in Oakland, but even a healthy season that lacks possession-receiver-type productivity could get him sent out.
Experience: 2 seasons
Signed through: 2013
2010 receiving: 12 starts, 761 snaps (342 run plays / 419 pass plays), 60 targets / 26 receptions, 366 yards / 14.1 YPR, 106 yards after catch / 4.1 avg YAC, 1 touchdown, 7 drops
2010 rushing: 4 carries, 48 yards
PFF grades: overall -13.7, receiving -12.0
Training camp reports singing Heyward-Bey’s praises were pumped out of Napa almost daily. He had turned the corner, put in the extra time, rededicated himself – he was the last guy on the field every day working on tightening up his routes and softening his hands. He was primed to surprise. Turns out, DHB’s draft slot is still the only surprise he’s had for Raider fans.
Much noise was made surrounding the decision to select him so high in the 2009 draft and more followed when, despite starting 11 games as a rookie, he managed only nine receptions. Critics were quick to slam and few resisted the word “bust.” In 2010, he did very little to change their minds. He was thrown at 22 more times and caught 17 more balls, but climbing up to a total of 26 catches just isn’t impressive.
His speed was what attracted the Raiders to him; no doubt envisioning a blur racing past the deepest defenders, slowing only as he cruised through the endzone, ball in hand, readying for his regular leaps into the Black Hole. The reality is, in two seasons, there have been 33 attempts to get him the ball downfield (throws of over 20 yards) and those efforts have netted four catches, just one of which went the distance.
Particularly damaging to his pre-season “improved hands, improved work ethic, improved want-to” image was what became evident on many of his deep ball chances – his inability to win battles for the ball; the perfect test of those claims.
The third year is often thought of as especially telling for receivers. Heyward-Bey’s third season is coming up and, though Mr. Davis still has faith, half of the Raider nation has moved on from any hope of a DHB turnaround … and most of the others are wavering.
Experience: 2 seasons
Signed through: 2012
2010 receiving: 9 starts, 737 snaps (283 run plays / 454 pass plays), 74 targets / 41 receptions, 609 yards / 14.9 YPR, 227 yards after catch / 5.5 avg YAC, 2 touchdowns, 3 drops
2010 rushing: 1 carry, 43 yards
PFF grades: overall -7.8, receiving -6.1
Murphy got to ride in the shadows for a while. Selected in the same draft as Heyward-Bey, but three rounds later, he didn’t face the same scrutiny. Like DHB, Murphy was made an instant starter but, unlike DHB, he made an impact out of the gate: a pair of touchdowns in the 2009 Monday Night opener in Oakland (yes, two touchdowns, one was reversed on the score sheet, but not in my head.)
The remainder of Murphy’s 2009 was uneventful – save for his heroics in Pittsburgh – but he entered 2010 as the smart money choice to finish as the top Raider receiver, and, by the numbers, he did. However, with 15 of his 41 catches coming in the first three weeks, he averaged just 2.3 catches after and lost his grip on the top billing when Ford emerged. Still, 40+ catches and over 600 yards is a respectable season.
Murphy displays passion, speed, and the ability to execute from a variety of positions (running routes from the slot half as often as from the outside in 2010.) He has lapses and sloppy moments, but as with the rest, he’s young and can make fixes. There is an NFL receiver here, and if everything works out, he could combine with Ford to give the Raiders two-thirds of a dangerous trio. Finding a legit number one to top it off is another question, but at this point, any positives need to be recognized.
Experience: 1 season
Signed through: 2013
2010 receiving: 9 starts, 577 snaps (250 run plays / 327 pass plays), 50 targets / 25 receptions, 470 yards / 18.8 YPR, 125 yards after catch / 5.0 avg YAC, 2 touchdowns, 5 drops
2010 rushing: 10 carries, 155 yards, 2 touchdowns
2010 returning: 53 kickoff returns, 24.2 yards per return, 3 touchdowns
PFF grades: overall -3.6, receiving -2.4
Could this be him? The next Cliff Branch? Al Davis has been searching for this player – the downfield playmaker with blazing speed and go-get-the-ball instincts – for years. Being that this was just his rookie season, expectations like that are probably unfair to throw at Jacoby Ford, but judging by the humble maturity he has shown to date, perhaps he can handle it.
After getting only 41 snaps through his first six weeks in the Silver and Black, Ford was thrust into extended action in Week 7. He started every game after that, earning an average of 53 snaps. His display in the season-defining home win over Kansas City demanded attention – a 94-yard kickoff return TD to open the second half, a body-twisting adjustment to haul in an underthrown long ball, an eye-popping effort to steal away a sure interception in the final minute, and his signature catch of the season, sprinting past Brandon Flowers to secure a 47-yard heave that set-up the game winning, overtime field goal.
Standing only 5’ 9”, Ford obviously isn’t going to cure the Raiders’ need for a big-bodied, possession receiver capable of defeating tight underneath coverage, but that’s not why he’s here. He’s a Raider because he can push the top of the defense and maneuver his way to the big play. All that remains for his full transformation to Raider legend reincarnate is a “Speed Kills” sign hanging in the end zone and a jersey number inversion to #21 … which, unfortunately, may be available soon.