Nov 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray (28) scores on an 11-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Musgrave’s offenses have generally involved a single feature back, though this may have had to do with the fact that his backs were all-time greats like Fred Taylor and Adrian Peterson. In both Jacksonville and Minnesota, the feature back was a large, powerful, downhill runner with breakaway speed: Peterson at 6’1″ and 217 has the speed of a wideout, and Taylor at 6’1″ and 230 had the speed of a cornerback in his prime. Behind that feature runner, he generally has used a similar profile back, if not quite as fast: in Jacksonville he used LeBrandon Toefield and Greg Jones, in Minnesota he used Toby Gearhart and Matt Asiata. He also values a traditional lead-blocking fullback: he had Marc Edwards in Jacksonville, and Jerome Felton in Minnesota.
Del Rio, after Musgrave left, was a bit more open-minded about his running backs: he drafted the 5’7″ Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006, though Jones-Drew was at 215 still a very sturdy and physical running back. Del Rio let Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor share the load for three seasons, and even with MJD as his feature back still let a good share of carries to to Rashad Jennings before the latter departed for the Raiders. So while the two may have some minor differences in the way they prefer to staff their running backs group and use their rushers, the two both will be looking for at least two big, strong, fast running backs.
The Raiders currently have four running backs who will be under contract in 2015: Latavius Murray, Marcel Reece, Maurice Jones-Drew and George Atkinson III. Murray and Reece seem to be locks for the roster: Murray, in limited action last season, excited the team and the fan base and was a big part in the Raiders’ first win in 2014 thanks to his 4 carry, 112 yards, 2 TD performance against Kansas City. Reece was a Pro Bowler this year, and has been the only Raider to reach the Pro Bowl in nearly a decade. He is also getting paid a ton of money and is under contract until 2017.
Murray is the type of back that Musgrave and Del Rio love, and Musgrave has said as much in comments to the media since his hire. In a conference call with the media, Musgrave said that he is excited to work with the young running back in order to “tailor our run game” to him. At 6’3″ and 225, Murray is big and strong, but he has speed in the high 4.3 or low 4.4 range, giving him that breakaway ability that helped him make a 90 yard TD run against the Chiefs in his breakout game. He hits the hole with quickness and power, demonstrates good vision, and engages tacklers with physicality in much the way that Fred Taylor and Adrian Peterson did for Musgrave. While he has a very limited body of work, and has had some injuries already in his brief career, his physical ability and upside are high, and Murray could very well be the Raiders’ feature back in a run-heavy, power offense orchestrated by Musgrave.
Marcel Reece is one of the most versatile backs in the league, though his production seemed to peak back in 2012. Reece, a fullback, has developed from a raw talent who could be a threat in the passing game to a quality blocker, runner and receiver, though he has been under-utilized in the latter two for much of the past two seasons. While Reece can fit the Jerome Felton/Greg Jones/Marc Edwards role of a traditional fullback for Musgrave, Reece is unlike any back – or really any player – Bill Musgrave has coached, at 6’3″ and about 240 pounds with the speed and agility of a smaller back or even a wide receiver. Reece was lined up all over the field by previous offensive coordinators Greg Knapp and Greg Olson – as an H-back, split wide, in the slot, or as a traditional fullback. He has even been called upon to carry the load as a runner.
Over the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he carried the ball 105 times for 489 yards, and last year he carried the ball eight times for 36 yards in the win over Kansas City, including some crucial carries late on the final, clock-killing, game-winning drive. He also has a 4.7 career rushing average. With his size, speed, and versatility, Reece could find himself a key feature of the Raider offense, both in the running and passing game. He can be used as a change-of-pace and short-yardage back, as well as a pass protecting and receiving back in passing situations. Musgrave, who is a brilliant schemer and play designer, will undoubtedly find new and exciting ways to use his new and exciting weapon. Expect Reece to have a more central role as both a receiver and runner in Musgrave’s 2015 Raider offense.
The other two backs who still have time left on their contracts could all be expendable under the new regime. Maurice Jones-Drew, whom Del Rio coached for six years in Jacksonville, may be the hardest to cut simply due to his name and the respect Del Rio has for him. The pocket-sized Drew has not recorded a 1,000 yard season since his career-high year in 2011, Del Rio’s last year in Jacksonville. He has missed 15 games with injuries in the past three seasons, and averaged 3.6 yards per carry over that stretch. Last year he averaged a paltry 2.2 yards per carry for the Raiders. Del Rio may carry MJD into camp out of respect and for old times sake, but it appears the clock has run out on the Oakland native.
George Atkinson III, son of Raider legend George Atkinson II, was signed as a priority undrafted free agent and signed to the practice squad before injuries necessitated his activation. He appeared in five games for the Raiders in 2014, but did not log a single carry or reception on offense during the regular season, though he did record seven kickoff returns for 134 yards. Atkinson is technically on a two year deal, but is essentially making league minimum with nothing guaranteed and he could be put back on the practice squad at this point in his career. The tall, graceful Atkinson, who was a special player at Notre Dame but not a consistent, every-down runner, will likely be carried into training camp by the new regime, but unless he shows something special in camp, will not be used in the Raider offense to any real extent.
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