Updated March 18, 2021 - 4:43 pm
Jon Gruden reached back in time on Thursday and came up with a move that could create the type of two-headed running back model that marked the first phase of his head coaching career.
In reeling in running back Kenyan Drake, the former Arizona Cardinal, the Raiders now have a productive, versatile complement to young running back Josh Jacobs.
The hope is that the new pairing replicates the two-back tandems Gruden leaned on so heavily during his first stint with the Raiders and during his years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Think Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon Kaufman with the Raiders or Michael Pittman and Thomas Jones with Tampa Bay.
The addition of Drake was expensive. He will make a fully guaranteed $11 million over the two years of the deal. But broken up in individual years, the $5.5 million he’ll make in salary is not prohibitive.
The five-year veteran is coming off a season in Arizona in which he rushed for 955 yards and 10 touchdowns on 239 carries. He also caught 25 passes for 137 yards.
That season was his first opportunity to be the featured back after four seasons in Miami in which he shared duties. With the Raiders, he will return to the tandem role.
His production in Miami proves he can be effective while splitting time with another back. He had seasons of 644 and 535 yards on fewer than 150 carries with the Dolphins, and the 2019 season in which he had 817 yards in 170 carries between the Dolphins and Cardinals.
The addition of Drake, coupled with the re-signing of Theo Reddick on Thursday to a one-year deal, could leave Jalen Richard in a tenuous position. The backup running back is scheduled to make $3.75 million this season, but that number now becomes conspicuous when combined with what the Raiders are paying Drake. Given the unguaranteed nature of Richard’s salary, the Raiders can release him with no penalty to the salary cap.
In another offensive transaction on Thursday, the Raiders also re-signed veteran tight end Derek Carrier.
The focus now is on the offensive line, and specifically what to do at right tackle. The club re-signed versatile lineman Denzelle Good on Wednesday, and while he showed last year he can play tackle, he might be better suited at guard in a tandem with Richie Incognito.
If so, the Raiders could turn to free agency to come up with a starting right tackle or to a deep draft that figures to produce starting options in the first and second rounds.
The trade of veteran center Rodney Hudson on Wednesday opens the door for Andre James, who the club is high on. But the signing on Thursday of center Nick Martin adds competition and insurance in case James is not ready. Martin started 62 games over the last four seasons for the Houston Texans.
Free safety is also a priority, more so now with Erik Harris leaving as a free agent to Atlanta. While the Raiders have been involved with some of the bigger names remaining on the board, the asking price has been a bit too rich for their liking.
They are content to play the waiting game and take advantage of a still robust group of safeties — Anthony Harris, Kareem Jackson, Duron Harmon and Tre Boston — in the hope that the prices come down.
In addition, the Raiders are on the lookout for a slot cornerback and cornerback depth in general.
Meanwhile, the fate of backup quarterback Marcus Mariota remains uncertain. The Raiders have approached him about a pay cut from the unguaranteed $10.7 million he is slated to make in 2021. But their overtures have been unsuccessful.
The next option would be a trade or outright release. The issue for Mariota is that all the starting opportunities across the league are drying up. As the one-year, $2.5 million Mitchell Trubisky accepted to be the backup in Buffalo shows, the money for reserve quarterbacks is falling too.
Mariota’s options are dwindling. He can either stay in Las Vegas at a reduced salary or be released to an uncertain market with few possibilities and even less available money.
Kenyan Drake by the numbers
2020 – 955 yards, 10 touchdowns, 4.0 YPC
2019 – 817 yards, 8 touchdowns, 4.8 YPC
Career – 695 carries, 3,130 yards, 27 touchdowns, 4.5 YPC
2020 – 25 catches, 137 yards
2019 – 50 catches, 345 yards
Career – 169 catches, 1,244 yards