The Las Vegas Raiders made a controversial signing this offseason by inking former Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million contract.
Many people, including myself, were skeptical of spending that much money on a backup running back, especially since the organization decided to move on from three Week 1 starters along the offensive line. But the Raiders might have bigger plans for their newest offensive weapon that goes beyond an RB2 role.
In an interview with Mike Clay on SiriusXM NFL, Drake said he expects to play a more versatile role which includes playing some wide receiver in Las Vegas. Putting the versatile back out wide would help justify and make sense of the signing, since that would create more opportunities for him and the Raiders leading rusher, Josh Jacobs, to be on the field at the same time.
However, it does beg this question: What is Drake’s potential as a wide receiver? And is this a role that he’s proven to be successful at in the past, or more of a projection by head coach Jon Gruden and company?
To determine if Drake has been used as a wideout in the past, we’ll start by diving into some alignment and snap count numbers. Last season, he lined up at wide receiver on 4.7 percent of passing plays he participated in, with 4.4 percent coming in the slot and 0.3 out wide. Among the 58 running backs with at least 21 targets in 2020, the former Cardinal’s slot usage was the 34th-highest and that ranking drops to dead last for his outside receiver rate.
In going back to the 2019 season, we find some more encouraging numbers. Drake played wide receiver on 10.9 percent of passing snaps, 6.0 percent on the inside (23rd-highest among qualifying RBs) and 4.8 percent on the outside (39th-highest).
By using Pro Football Focus’ yards per route run (YPRR) statistic, it’s easy to see that the increased opportunities as a wide receiver led to more production and efficiency in the passing game for the offensive weapon. His YPRR was a measly 0.55 last year compared to 1.11 two years ago. While this trend is a good sign, it still doesn’t suggest Drake can be a productive wideout as the former ranked 54th out of 58 running backs, and the latter was only good enough for 32nd out of 46.
Granted, Drake did mention that he felt pigeonholed as a first- and second-down back in Arizona, so maybe those low figures are more indicative of the scheme than the player.
In 2018, Drake’s last full year with Dolphins, he had his most productive season as a receiver with 53 receptions for 477 yards and five touchdowns. Unsurprisingly, he lined up as a wideout more frequently with 10.3 percent of his pass snaps out wide and 5.4 percent in the slot. He also posted a career-high YPRR of 1.59. Those numbers ranked 20th, 23rd and 10th, respectively, out of 54 qualifying running backs that year.
The trend we are seeing is extremely encouraging. As Drake takes more snaps out wide, not only is he a more productive receiver but also more efficient, as evidenced by his YPRR.
However, the versatile back’s potential as a pass-catcher is still more of a projection given the relatively small sample size, so to fully understand what he brings to the table as a wideout, we need to turn to the tape.
One area of the field that Drake has consistently performed well in as a receiver from year-to-year, is the short or 0 to 9 yards past the line of scrimmage range. For any receiver to capitalize on short receptions, they must be able to make plays after the catch. So, we’ll look at a few clips to see what the Raiders’ free agent signing can do with the ball in his hands.
Working on something for Kenyan Drake as a WR and this clip caught my eye.— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) July 18, 2021
Love the turn into pressure and the speed + agility to turn a 2-yard catch into a 20-yard gain pic.twitter.com/N3KXYhi8c4
In this first clip, Drake is going to be wide open on a curl route thanks to this soft zone from Seattle on second and long. While there isn’t much to glean on from the route, what Drake does after the catch makes this play special.
Once he secures the catch, he feels the pressure coming from the outside with that corner coming downhill, and he turns into said pressure to throw off the defensive back’s angle. Then, he has the agility and speed to pivot up the field quickly and turn a two-yard catch into nearly a 20-yard gain and a first down. This type of play is very translatable if the former Cardinal ends up taking more reps from the slot.
Drake lined up at WR catching a screen and putting those RBs skills to use to create a 3rd and short situation pic.twitter.com/7wfPEdufVF— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) July 19, 2021
Here, we’re going to get a glimpse of what Drake can do when lined up out wide. Coming off this screen pass, he recognizes that Andy Isabella – No. 89 in the slot – has outside leverage on the defender. So, Drake stems to the inside for a step to help set up that block and from there, his running back skills can take over as he gets up the field, jump cuts to force an arm tackle from No. 41 and falls forward to turn second and ten into third and three.
While that’s not exactly highlight tape material, it’s a productive play that any offensive coordinator will love because it opens up the playbook on third down.
Drake catches a swing pass here and turns it into a 17-yard gain, very transferrable to bubble routes from the slot pic.twitter.com/pzTowP7HUC— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) July 19, 2021
In this next play, we’re going to see Drake back in the backfield catching a swing pass, but this concept is very similar to him hauling in a bubble screen from the slot.
Like the previous clip, Drake is going to do an excellent job of working up the field first to help set up the perimeter blocking. Then, he shows off some impressive agility with the jump cut to the outside and finishes with a nice burst to pick up 17 yards on first and 15. Gruden should be able to mimic a play like this on some RPOs with Drake in the slot.
He doesn't get targeted here, but this is teach-tape material on running an option route from Drake pic.twitter.com/rdobPyyjDq— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) July 19, 2021
Unfortunately, he doesn’t get targeted here, but Drake puts on a master class in how to run the option route. Coming out of the backfield, he attacks the linebacker and works to get square to give himself a two-way go. Then, he gets on the backer’s toes before cutting and has the change of direction to fall off the table and leave the linebacker grasping at air.
This is another route that can be easily emulated from as an inside wide receiver. In fact, option routes from the slot are a big part of Gruden’s offense so I’d expect to see a lot of this during the season.
Nothing too sexy, but beautiful blitz recognition as the hot read by Drake. Plus, more goodies after the catch pic.twitter.com/47v8FeWMJC— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) July 19, 2021
My biggest takeaway from the clip above has to do with the catch and the awareness involved. Buffalo is showing a double A-gap look and running a simulated pressure out of it. That means Ryan Tannehill – the quarterback – is responsible for the end man on the line of scrimmage in the protection scheme.
The end man rushes which means Tannehill must throw this ball hot or quickly to avoid the sack. Drake has the awareness to recognize that he’s the hot read in this concept, so he gets his head around immediately.
Now, since the ball is coming out quick, it’s going to have a little more gas than normal and probably won’t be on target, making this catch more difficult than what meets the eye. But the former Dolphins’ combination of awareness and soft hands make it look easy.
Finally, the clip turns into another example of his running back skills translating after the catch, as he shows great contact balance to stay upright, break that first tackle and kick it into another gear to bring the ball inside the five-yard line.
Slot receivers are typically the hot read on most passing concepts. While it might seem simple, there’s a nuance to recognizing the blitz, snapping your head around and securing the catch all within a matter of seconds that can take a lot of time and reps to perfect. So, it’s a good sign that we’re seeing this from Drake even though he has limited experience playing that role.
Drake playing more as a wide receiver with the Raiders is definitely more of a projection than something that’s a concrete part of his game, at this point. He doesn’t have a long track record of success playing that role at his other stops, but between the statistical trend and film seen above, there is reason to believe Las Vegas’ free agent signing can be effective out wide.
Look for Gruden to use Drake in the slot and put his yards after the catch to work on short routes. Who knows, maybe Drake will become the Raiders’ No. 2 receiver and the contract won’t look so puzzling after all.