The middle of the field is where Jimmy Garoppolo is supposed to thrive. And the addition of Michael Mayer in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft provided another weapon who can eat where Garoppolo feasts.
Through the four games Garoppolo has started as the Las Vegas Raiders quarterback, that hasn’t materialized. That needs to change in a hurry.
Garoppolo is never going to be mistaken for cannon-armed signal callers. So the deep bombs on go routes or even sluggos are out of the question. That’s a big reason why Las Vegas is seeing more loaded boxes gear at stymying running back Josh Jacobs. They can merely load the box, play man or zone behind it, knowing Garoppolo isn’t going to make them pay with a long ball.
But where Garoppolo can make defenses rue the day they put too much focus on stonewalling Jacobs is with play action and quick passes on slants or drag routes that lead to yards after the catch (YAC). There were glimpses of that in the Raiders’ 17-13 Monday night win over the Packers. Running shorter routes, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound rookie hauled in two passes for 39 yards (a long of 20) and showed the same route running, smooth hands, and physicality that made him a big part of Notre Dame’s offense.
Raiders rookie TE Michael Mayer has had a wiry start to his career, with only 3 targets coming into MNF.— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) October 10, 2023
But here he has his second catch of the 1st quarter.
A nice gain of 20 as Mayer flashes his physicality, and clean hands. pic.twitter.com/1J52lYmelk
The Packers defense bit and went forward and that was enough for Mayer to glide past defenders, make the catch, brace and welcome contact on the 20-yard gain.
“Yeah, I mean, run after catch, yards after contact, I mean, all that stuff, when you have a tight end or a big receiver, big back that gets the ball in space and you make smaller men try to tackle you, I mean, sometimes you create even bigger plays,” Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels said of Mayer’s physicality during the mid-week press conference. “And he ended up with a handful yards after they touched him the other night, too.”
Then McDaniels noted something that should be music to Mayer’s and the offense’s ears as a whole.
“So, that’s always been a position that we’ve gotten the ball to quite a bit inside the middle of field, and I think that as the season goes on we need to continue to try to do that,” McDaniels continued. “Got good players at that position, obviously invested a significant draft pick in Michael and that position group is coming on, improving, working hard in practice, which is important. I think developing some chemistry with our quarterbacks too.”
During his days as the offensive play caller with the New England Patriots, McDaniels made it a habit to feature tight ends in the passing attack. McDaniels needs his quarterback and tight ends — Mayer and Austin Hooper — to get in sync and part of the aerial attack going forward. And what better time to do so this Sunday, when the Raiders play host to the Patriots. Getting Mayer and Hooper more in the mix would be giving New England a taste of its own medicine.
“And there’s a lot of other things that go along with that, but we have good pass protection and the quarterback is reading the plays properly and they’re attacking the middle of field the right way, I mean you have opportunities,” McDaniels said. “So, he made a handful of good plays the other day. Austin had a couple of touches too. So, just going to keep trying to incorporate those guys as much as we can.”
It’s clear whether it’s Garoppolo or rookie Aidan O’Connell at quarterback, the featured targets are wide receivers Davante Adams (team-leading 37 catches for 442 yards and three touchdowns) and Jakobi Meyers (25 catches for 274 yards and three scores) and running back Josh Jacobs (23 catches for 193 yards). Hooper and Mayer are far behind with six catches for 62 yards and three catches for 41 yards, respectively.
McDaniels is calling the plays, but ultimately, the person distributing the ball is Garoppolo. And thus far, he’s thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) even though his accuracy is good (86 of 125 for 68.8 percent). But it’s highly likely Garoppolo may have more yards (917 so far) and less interceptions if he went to his bread and butter of the middle of the field on short and intermediate passes by looking Mayer’s and Hooper’s way. The numbers were staggering in how many routes Mayer ran and looks he got heading into the Monday Night Football matchup.
#Raiders 2nd round rookie TE Michael Mayer has run 51 pass routes this season and has 1 catch for 2 yards on 2 targets— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) October 6, 2023
Mayer got three targets, two of them he caught, the third might’ve been a big play as the rookie was all alone in the flat and had plenty of green grass in front of him with nary a Packers defender around and Garoppolo’s pass was too far in front and low.
“It’s something that we haven’t done a lot of, so I think it was a nice little changeup for us,” Garoppolo noted about getting the tight ends involved. “Like I said before, it keeps the defense on their toes. They have to cover everybody. And yeah, those guys they run hard with the ball so we’ve just got to get it in their hands.”
Both Mayer and Hooper are no slouches as receiving tight ends and well as blockers. And if Las Vegas has any designs on forcing teams to get out of loading the box, it must not only allow it’s tight ends to sneak out on routes, but the quarterback must target them. Making defenses account for more viable targets will not only help the passing attack, but also alleviate the resistance Jacobs sees at the line of scrimmage and beyond. For the health of the Raiders offense — one that hasn’t broken the 20-point threshold in a game so far — it’s a must-happen.
“I mean, yes, cool, but I don’t care,” Adams said when asked if it’s nice to see more players touch the ball on offense. “If two people touch the ball and we score 50 points, I’d rather that than have 90 people touch the ball in the game and you go out you can’t score over 20 points.”