Upon returning to the NFL sidelines, Gruden made sure his offense had an abundance of versatile players that could move around on the field to throw defenses off guard. But on a team littered with recognizable skill players such as Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson, Gruden’s ‘joker’ can be easily forgotten. That is until defenses face him.
When NFL free agency kicked off in March and big-time names were signed making national headlines, Gruden instead opted to make tight end Derek Carrier one of his first signings, inking the journeyman tight end to a three-year deal. So there should be no surprise the Raiders play caller had a vision for how the all-around tight end would fit into his offensive attack.
“Good player, man,” Gruden said after Wednesday’s camp practice. “He can play in the slot and be a big receiver. He can play in-line and be a tight end. He can cover kicks. He can run option routes. He has quickness and savvy and great instincts. He’s been a former receiver in college.
“He’s what I call a joker. You can line him up in any hand. He can line up here, there or anywhere. He’s a good player.”
As elite tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce have proven, tight ends can be a matchup nightmare in the NFL as they are often faster than linebackers yet larger than defensive backs. And while the Silver & Black might be lacking a pro bowler at the position, they have two chess pieces that can be used across the offense in Carrier and Jared Cook.
“Jared and I can attack defenses different ways,” Carrier told Vic Tafur of The Athletic. “We have a couple of different personnel groupings that we use and it’s a lot of fun.”
Gruden’s vision of what Carrier could become in his offense sprung to life during joint practices with the Lions, as Detroit’s defense had no answer for the combination of Carrier and Cook in the Raiders two-tight end sets according to Tafur.
Carrier initially joined the Silver & Black as an undrafted free agent in 2012 after catching general manager Reggie McKenzie’s eye. The rookie was eventually waived, and bounced around the Eagles and 49er’s before eventually signing with the Redskins in 2015, coached by none other than Jon Gruden’s younger brother.
Turns out, the elder Gruden isn’t the only coach in the family attracted to what Carrier brings to the table.
“My son, too,” Gruden said. “My son was a strength coach out there and really liked Carrier. Jay loved Carrier. He got hurt as a Redskin and got into a log jam. A couple other guys emerged. Got released. Sean McVay, who was with the Redskins, claimed Carrier and when Carrier got to be a free agent, I got Carrier.
“There’s a lot of Carrier fans out there but I’m leading the charge.”
Since returning to Oakland, Carrier has grown to 6-foot-4 and 244-pounds, but his knowledge of the game and skill set have increased as well.
“Obviously when I came into the league as a wide receiver and now being a tight end, my blocking has just grown incredibly,” the seventh year tight end told our own Levi Damien following his signing last March. “And that’s not to say that I’m done growing, I still have areas of my game that I can improve all around. That’s just something that I take pride in, just trying to get better and being the best complete player and teammate that I can be here.”
Similar to the villain made famous as Batman’s nemesis, Gruden’s ‘joker’ could keep people up at night. Only instead of children enamored by super heroes, they will be NFL defensive coordinators.