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Raiders feel bitten by injury bug—Where do they stack up against the rest of the league?

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The Raiders have had key players miss time this year, and it has led many to feel like the season could have been different

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Many within the Oakland Raiders’ brass feel as if the team has been bitten by the injury bug in 2019. It seems to be out of the norm.

Head coach Jon Gruden was asked on Friday if the attrition his team has faced this year seemed extreme.

“Yeah it has been. We’ve lost three linebackers pretty much for the whole year, two safeties, the receiving corps has taken a lot of hits, tight end, running back, and offensive line. So yeah, it has. Special teams, our punt returner. It’s been tough.”

One of those safeties was Jonathan Abram, the third of the Raiders’ first round picks in the 2019 draft, who played in just the season opener, sustaining a scary injury against the Denver Broncos.

The reality, though, is from Sept. 13, when the Raiders placed Abram on injured reserve till Oct. 5, they did not place another player on injured reserve. On Oct. 5, it was guard Jordan Devey. It was a full month after that until the next player found that list—defensive end Arden Key.

Karl Joseph, the other safety who Gruden alluded to, found himself on that list two days after Key on Nov. 9. Dwayne Harris and Foster Moreau were the last two players, respectively, until the Raiders gave the same designation to Trent Brown this week.

In other words, if we’re going simply by IR designations, anecdotally it doesn’t seem the Raiders have been that much more injured than any other team in the NFL. A little data supports the notion that they have not either.

The Raiders are nearly smack dab in the middle of the league in man games lost to injured players in 2019. Standing out in that graph is the fact the NFC West leading Seattle Seahawks have the second most man games lost in the entire league, only one game shy of the Washington Redskins. And the New England Patriots come in with the fifth most.

Aside from those two teams, it is mostly mediocre or worse teams that inhabit the top half of the league, though Kansas City has overcome its fair share of man games missed to become one of the most dominant teams in the league in the second half of the season.

What also stands out in the graph above is the size of the bubble surrounding the Oakland data point. As the graph explains, the bigger the bubble, the larger the AAV (or player efficiency) that is lost to injury. The Raiders’ bubble is quite small.

Of course, Man Games Lost may have a different formula for player efficiency than any other site, so that in itself must be taken with a grain of salt. But assuming it reflects anywhere near the true value of the players lost, Oakland has lost the third least value among injured players in the entire league, behind only Buffalo and Minnesota—likely both 2019 playoff teams (Buffalo has already clinched a spot).

If that is true, the Raiders’ feelings of being inordinately hit by the injury bug are completely a sham.

Gruden added some nuance to the discussion though. He spoke specifically of Tyrell Williams, who has battled plantar fasciitis for much of the year, but generally about his team, and NFL players as a whole, the second year coach said:

“I’m really proud of him. What you don’t see sometimes is what these guys go through to just get to the game. I’m not just talking about our players, but the players in this league period. When you can play good in this league when you’re not 100 percent, that’s a great pro football player. Those are the guys that really make a difference. Tyrell has done a good job. Rodney Hudson. Incognito. Some of these guys, Gabe Jackson, if you saw what these guys have done to be out on the field every week, Josh Jacobs, it’s really exciting for the future of this team.”

As much as empirical data is helpful, and injury data is becoming one of the key areas of football analytics at large, it can miss some of that nuance.

Perhaps the next frontier with player tracking and the wearable technology is to find out who is playing in games at less than full health, and at what percentage of their full health. If that data were widely available to the public, Man Games Lost and Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost could be enhanced to include even more nuance.

Instead for now we have to trek on with anecdotal nuance, which admittedly is quite helpful. For instance, Gruden says rookie running back Josh Jacobs can become a more influential player in the pass game in 2020 once he is back to full health.

“I think he has 20 catches right now. When he got hurt, I think it was the first play of the game against Green Bay, obviously his practice routine changed. And his role, although he was still carrying the ball quite a bit, his role changed a tad.”

It led to something of a domino effect, as the Raiders had to bring in Rod Smith as a fourth running back, once it became clear Jacobs was not fully healthy in the latter half of the season. Deandre Washington slides up to the No. 1 running back, Jalen Richard to 2, and Smith to an auxiliary role where he may see a few snaps.

It’s not ideal, but most every team in the NFL deals with it at one position or another. What might be different is that whereas the Vikings’ injuries seem to have hit hardest in their receiving corps, the Raiders’ really are spread throughout the entire roster.

But even the dominos and the injuries Gruden can swing into a positive. “It’s been a great opportunity for other guys to get a chance. In the long run, I think it will help our team.”