Finding Cheap Targets on Bad Teams: Oakland Raiders
Bad NFL teams pass the ball, sometimes a lot.
Because, see, when a team is in the constant grip of negative game script, an offense doesn't have the luxury to do all the favorite coach stuff like establish the run and maintain a run-pass balance and run so that they can pass—all of it nonsense coachspeak that should be swept into the dustbin of pigskin history.
This isn't to say every terrible NFL team puts up a truckload of pass attempts. Some bottom-barrel squads, like John Fox's horrid 2017 Chicago Bears or Jeff Fisher's abysmal 2016 L.A. Rams, stay committed to the run despite the never-ending negative game script. You have to admire the utter determination to go down with one's preferred misguided offensive strategy.
There is value to be had among these teams that just might take to the air in the face of double-digit second-half deficits in 2019. Those pass attempts, however forced or inaccurate, have to go somewhere, presumably to pass catchers we can roster on the cheap in re-draft fantasy leagues.
I crunched a bunch of numbers and found that truly bad NFL teams—squads that win five or fewer games—have averaged 550.7 pass attempts over the past three seasons, with 10 of those teams (47%) finishing among the top half of the league in pass attempts. For the sake of context, 550 pass attempts would have been the 16th most in 2018. Best-case scenarios in which awful teams took to the air at wild clips include the 2016 Jaguars, who threw the pigskin 626 times (fourth most), the 2017 Giants, with a league-leading 608 pass attempts, and the 2018 Bucs, who threw the ball 625 times (fourth most).
In this space over the next few weeks, we're going to examine cheap receiver targets on teams projected by Vegas to win fewer than six games in 2019. Not all of these teams will rank among the most pass-heavy, but the average draft positions of most of these pass catchers isn't incorporated into their redraft price points.
Let's look at the lowly Raiders.
The nature of Oakland's target distribution would have to change dramatically if one pass catcher is going to benefit from Derek Carr taking to the air as the Raiders face plenty of negative game script. It just so happens that a generational ball hog joined the Raiders this offseason.
Antonio Brown, the mercurial veteran who played himself out of Pittsburgh after the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, is the clear cut No. 1 receivers in Oakland this season. This marks a departure from 2018, when Amari Cooper—the expected WR1 in Oakland—saw just 5.2 targets per game in six contests with the Raiders. Jared Cook ended up leading the team with 101 targets, a 19.1% target share. Jordy Nelson led all Raiders receivers with 88 targets; 42 receivers saw more looks.
Few NFL teams have a leading pass catcher who sees less than 20% of the team’s targets. If any offense was a candidate for such a distinction, it would be the 2018 Raiders, which ranked 24th in yards per game, 28th in points per game, 31st in yards per point, and 29th in points per offensive snap. Suffice it to say the Silver and Black were an efficiency disaster in Jon Gruden’s terribly untriumphant return to the NFL.
But if any receiver could step in and command a big slice of what could be a good number of pass attempts in 2019, it’s Brown. Even with Smith-Schuster developing as the Steelers’ No. 1 option, Brown saw 26% of Pittsburgh’s 2018 targets. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering Brown’s history.
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