The Raiders Have One of the Most Valuable Backfield Situations in Fantasy
The narrative surrounding Latavius Murray is that he won’t be able to repeat last year’s fringe RB1 finish, and may even be in danger of losing his starting job to rookie fifth-rounder DeAndre Washington.
How to attack this situation in fantasy drafts deserves a closer look, because the Raiders’ backfield has the potential to be one of the most valuable situations in fantasy.
Why the Raiders Have One of Fantasy’s Most Valuable Backfield Situations
The Raiders May Have the NFL’s Best Offensive Line
The Cowboys offensive line has been the unquestioned class of the NFL for two years and running, but that was before the Raiders signed Pro Football Focus’s third-highest-graded run-blocking offensive lineman this offseason, Kelechi Osemele.
If you tally last year's PFF grades of every team’s projected starting offensive line in 2016, the Raiders rank first and the Cowboys rank second. When it comes to run blocking, the Raiders rank fourth, and the Cowboys fifth.
Osemele will start at left guard, and is a huge upgrade on the line over JaMarcus Webb, whose run blocking grade in 2015 wasn’t even 40 percent of what Osemele’s was.
At right guard, Gabe Jackson graded out 13th of 81 qualifying guards in 2015.
At tackle, Donald Penn and Austin Howard both graded out in the top 15 of 77 qualifiers at the position.
At center, Rodney Hudson graded out sixth of 39 qualifiers.
Put it all together, and Raiders running backs will run behind one of the best offensive lines in the football -- if not the best. An increase in efficiency from last year’s 3.9 yards per carry (24th in NFL) is likely.
The Raiders are in Line for More Positive Game Script
Running backs need volume to produce, and the more positive game script an offense is in, the more rushing plays they will call. In 2015, the Raiders struggled to stay in positive game script, running the 12th-fewest plays with a lead.
Much of the Raiders’ struggles to stay in positive game script last season can be attributed to a defense that permitted the 11th-most points and total yards in the league. But after an offseason where they added Sean Smith (ranked 12th-of-111 qualifying cornerbacks by PFF), Reggie Nelson (9th-of-89 qualifying safeties), and Bruce Irvin (15th-of-87 qualifying linebackers) to support first-team-all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack, the Raiders' defense should improve drastically.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Raiders are projected to be in line for far more positive game script this year than they were last year.
Vegas oddsmakers have the Raiders currently pegged as underdogs in only four of their 16 games; last season, the Raiders closed as underdogs 11 times. Things are obviously liable to change during the season, but aside from the aforementioned four games that they are an underdog in, the Raiders are favorites in seven games and pick ‘ems in the other five. In 2015, Bill Musgrave’s offense ran the ball 47 percent of the time when leading, but only 30 percent of the time when trailing (which is in line with NFL norms).
If the Raiders' free agent signings play as well as they have in the past and Vegas is right, the Raiders should be in line for an increase in volume from their 370 rushing attempts from last season, which ranked just 29th in the league.
Who Will Benefit From the Raiders Backfield Situation in Fantasy?
Murray in the Driver’s Seat; Washington Lurks
A year after Murray handled 80 percent of the team’s running back carries and finished fourth in the league in total touches (307) -- but also averaged 2.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and 3.3 in games 9-16 -- his workload is likely to decrease.
The Raiders are rightly more confident in fifth-round rookie DeAndre Washington than in any of last year’s alternatives, which included two fullbacks (Marcel Reece and Jamize Olawale), a return specialist who played cornerback the year before (Taiwan Jones), and a back who has averaged 2.9 carries per game over the last four years and 2.3 yards per carry last season (Roy Helu, a candidate for release).
However, with Murray still the favorite to lead in touches a potential double-digit-win team that will likely see an increase in both rushing play volume and efficiency, he has the potential to eclipse, or at least meet, the mid-range RB2 value he’s being drafted as.
Barring injury, Murray should hold off Washington for the starting job all year, as just 1.1 running backs per year drafted in the fifth round or later have amassed even 100 touches in their rookie season over the last 10 years.
Washington is the shiny new toy, but don't sleep on Murray's big-play ability: he's probably not quite as fast as the 4.43 40-yard dash time from his Pro Day after fracturing his ankle in his rookie season, but he's still fast for a 223-pounder (coming out of college, he had a 96th-percentile weight-adjusted speed score). Only three running backs had more carries of 20-plus yards than Murray did in 2015.
Washington isn't a size/speed freak like Murray, but does possess an 82nd-percentile SPARQ score. With the Raiders talking Washington up as a complete back, he’d likely push for RB1 numbers if Murray went down, given what looks to be a very advantageous situation. Washington mixed in with the first-team at June minicamp.
Washington is currently going undrafted in redraft leagues, and makes for an underrated, essentially free handcuff/insurance policy on Murray, which in turn makes it a lot easier to pull the trigger on Murray at his fourth- or fifth-round ADP. It’s also notable that Washington can be had 1-3 rounds later than some of the other top handcuffs in best ball leagues.
How to Approach the Raiders Backfield in Fantasy Drafts in 2016
In redraft leagues, I’m now open to the idea of targeting Murray and using a late pick on Washington as insurance in spots where I'd previously based my strategy around drafting running backs in the first few rounds to combat the shakiness of the position as the draft wears on. With wide receivers accounting for 67 and 92 percent of top-12 non-quarterback fantasy scores in standard and PPR leagues, respectively, in 2015, I lean toward the belief that Zero RB is currently the most optimal draft strategy. I want to allow myself the option of using early-round picks on stud wide receivers as much as possible.
With a relatively soft schedule (where a Week 17 matchup against the Broncos' stout run defense will be fantasy-irrelevant), and running behind what is likely to be one of the league's top offensive lines, the odds are favorable that Murray will turn in enough RB1 weeks to justify his current early fifth-round ADP in best ball leagues.
That said, Washington has arguably even more value at his current 13th-round ADP.
Drafters looking to round out their running back corps with a backup who could push for RB1 numbers if the starter went down can consider Washington a later-round alternative to DeAngelo Williams, Tevin Coleman, and Jerick McKinnon. Given Washington's pass-catching prowess (he had 124 receptions in his four-year college career), he may also offer standalone value -- similar to Charles Sims in Tampa Bay -- even if Murray stays healthy.