2022 Raiders Backfield Breakdown: The Winds of Change

by Noah Hills · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

The 2022 Raiders Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball. Then, I’ll dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the number of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with a low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with a high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures the degree of volatility, not the quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

The Las Vegas Raiders finished just 26th in the NFL in rushing attempt volume a season ago, as their 414 carries were almost 40 fewer than the league average. 2021 was the first time since the first year of the Jon Gruden era that the Raiders were not one of the run-heaviest teams in the league. As they finished 11th in each of the last two seasons after having the 24th-most carries back in 2018.

According to rbsdm.com, the Gruden-led Raiders have been fairly middle-of-the-pack in run-rate on early downs and in neutral game script situations. Opting to pound the rock 48.8-percent of the time. That rate was 13th in the NFL from 2018 to 2021.

Changes are sure to come in Las Vegas in 2022, as Gruden has been replaced as head coach by long-time Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

McDaniels’ offenses in New England have been some of the run-heaviest in the league in recent years, even prior to Tom Brady leaving for greener pastures in Tampa Bay. From 2018 to 2021, they finished 3rd, 9th, 3rd, and 8th, respectively, in rushing attempts. While having the 10th-highest run rate in the NFL in early-down and neutral game script situations. Last season, they opted to run the ball more often than expected (by play-by-play data) in nearly every down-and-distance situation they found themselves in, and 5-percent more often than expected overall.

Nonetheless, McDaniels-led offenses have historically been pass-heavy just as often as they’ve been run-oriented. The Patriots have often modified their game plan year-to-year to accentuate the particular configuration of skill-position talent on the team. With a bevy of receiving weapons in Las Vegas, things are lining up for the Raiders to air it out frequently. For my money, league-average rushing volume is likely the best we can hope for from this squad in 2022.

Efficiency Numbers

For the third time in three seasons, Josh Jacobs was the main man in the Raiders backfield last year. The Kenyan DrakePeyton Barber tandem rounded out the bulk of the non-Jacobs work, while Jalen Richard and Trey Ragas picked up the scraps. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of those five runners:

For the first time in his career, Jacobs posted Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate marks that were both above-average last season, with numbers in the 52nd and 57th percentiles, respectively. His performances in those two metrics combine to give him a Composite Efficiency Score of 54.6, good for 18th in the league among lead runners. After a rookie season in which he posted an 85th-percentile BAE Rating with a 75th-percentile showing in Breakaway Conversion Rate. Jacobs has maxed out as a low-upside, steady runner without open-field juice in the two years since.

Drake and Barber produced at almost identical per-carry rates last season, but their numbers came in very different circumstances. Drake was slightly less efficient than other Raider running backs while facing lighter defensive fronts than they saw. All while Barber just outperformed his teammates while seeing very heavy box counts. Only three other backs in the last six years have had as high of Box Count+ numbers as Barber did last season while also carrying the ball at least 50 times. 2019 Sony Michel, 2016 LeGarrette Blount, and 2019 Frank Gore. The only back to qualify for that list twice is Barber himself, as on 94 carries with Washington in 2020, he saw 0.97 more defenders in the box on his average carry than other Football Team runners did.

Richard was completely ineffective on light work, while Ragas was the best ballcarrier in the league on a per-carry basis.

Now What?

The Raiders completely overhauled their running back room this offseason. All three of Barber, Richard, and Ragas are no longer with the team, and they’ve been replaced by veterans Brandon Bolden and Ameer Abdullah. In addition to rookies Brittain Brown, Sincere McCormick, and Zamir White.

Bolden has never been a huge contributor on offense, but he’s capable as both a runner and receiver and will be familiar to McDaniels from their eight seasons together in New England. Abdullah had a down year with the Panthers last season, but he’s generally been a quality runner throughout his career.

Brown doesn’t have a particularly strong overall profile, but he did post above-average BAE Ratings in every season of his college career. He was especially impressive at UCLA in 2020 and 2021, when he managed Composite Efficiency Scores of 89.0 and 84.3, respectively. McCormick was very productive and handled heavy workloads at UTSA, though he wasn’t particularly impressive as a runner beyond his freshman season. The past two seasons, he posted BAE Ratings of 107.7-percent and 100.7-percent, respectively, which just isn’t quite good enough given that he wasn’t competing with especially talented teammates.

Barring a litany of injuries to the players ahead of them on the depth chart, none of Bolden, Abdullah, Brown, or McCormick should see fantasy-relevant work in this offense.

It’s likely a different story for White. While battling a string of serious injuries, White was still able to post positive RSR marks in every season at Georgia, and he even managed to record a BAE Rating of 102.7-percent in 2021. That’s not particularly impressive at face value, but given the injuries and the fact that his competition for teammate-relative efficiency was incredibly high, it’s at least a positive sign. White really shines in short-yardage situations, where he was vastly more successful than other Georgia runners throughout his three years as a Bulldog.

So Really, Now What?

Recent chatter out of Las Vegas suggests that there is likely to be a much flatter distribution of opportunity in this backfield than there has been in recent years. McDaniels has had a lot of success deploying a committee system with his running backs with the Patriots, and given the varying skillsets of this group, such a gameplan might be optimal. Drake is a capable pass-catcher, White is a reliable two-down pounder, Jacobs is a jack-of-all-trades who can straddle the fence between those two roles, and the other guys can compete for leftovers. For fantasy football purposes, we might be looking at a messy distribution of work that caps the upside of any one player in this backfield.

Final Word

Jacobs is currently being selected as the RB25 in dynasty startups, while White and Drake are being drafted as the RB51 and the RB77, respectively. Jacobs is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and I believe the most likely scenario is that he rides out this season with a subdued workload and then looks to jump ship in free agency next offseason. I’m not super excited about his odds of securing lead-back work elsewhere in that scenario.

White is the best value among these guys in dynasty. His game is not without limitations, but he’s a legitimately solid between-the-tackles runner with unrealized athletic potential, and there’s an outside chance that he’s the Raiders’ best option in that role in year 1. As he’s currently going in the mid-to-late second round of rookie drafts, it won’t cost you much to find out if Las Vegas views him as the heir apparent to the RB1 chair in 2023.