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Raiders Week 11: Rewarding the rookies

Getting Michael Mayer, Tre Tucker more involved can make Las Vegas’ offense more difficult to defend

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Chicago Bears
Finding ways to consistently use rookie wide receiver Tre Tucker (11) going forward will help make the Las Vegas Raiders offense more versatile and difficult to defend.
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

By waxing veteran fullback Jakob Johnson from the roster on Thursday, it appears the Las Vegas Raiders are intent on ridding themselves of the predictability that plagued them before the seismic shift.

Under previous head coach and offensive play caller Josh McDaniels, Johnson in the huddle and formation predicated the play would be a run or play action. As a lead blocker and safety valve receiving option, the Raiders were limited in what they could do with the one-dimensional fullback.

Turns out, Johnson missing time with a concussion, revealed to interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree, Johnson wasn’t quite the requisite piece on offense as Las Vegas deployed more single-back formations and have been more successful without a lead blocker. The Silver & Black offense has more versatility and less predictability without a fullback — addition by subtraction.

Time to add even more utility to the Las Vegas’ offense — getting the ball in the hands of intriguing rookies Michael Mayer and Tre Tucker.

The first-year tight end and wide receiver, respectively, are the two youngest players on the Raiders roster at age 22 and are progressing through the season as rookies do. Of the two, Mayer’s involvement and production fluctuates from Week 5 on while Tucker’s appearances have been sporadic and for specific purposes. On the season, Mayer has 16 catches for 178 yards with his first-career touchdown coming on a leap and grab in the end zone against the New York Jets last Sunday night. Tucker, meanwhile, has six receptions for 125 yards and an additional six rushes for 69 yards.

NFL: New York Jets at Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders rookie tight end Michael Mayer, right, hugs fellow rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell after catching his first career touchdown last Sunday night.
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

If Tucker isn’t running a deep post or vertical route, he’s getting the rock on end arounds or designed rush. The vertical shots to Tucker have worked — as evidenced by his 48-yard and 50-yard catches this year. He’s also galloped for a long of 34 yards and 16 yards on his designed carries. Mayer meanwhile, spends his time improving as a blocker and route runner who caught his initial touchdown on a play that broke down with him and fellow rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell improvising.

“Yeah, it’s third down and we have a field goal secured most likely. I just tried to give him a ball that only he could get, and he did an awesome job,” O’Connell said of the play during his mid-week media availability. “And we’ve seen plays like that for months now and so it’s awesome that the world got to see what he can do. But he’s a super dynamic player and we’re hoping for more plays like that.”

Hardegree should turn that hope into reality.

His job isn’t easy, of course. The Raiders do have an elite superstar at wide receiver who needs and gets his touches in Davante Adams, but spreading the ball around and getting the rock more in the hands of Mayer and Tucker will help the offense as a whole — especially if Jacobs is more productive here on in.

“There’s a twist here and there, but our core is our core,” Hardegree said when asked if he draws up new plays and installs them during the week. “We’re in this part of the season and it’s advantageous to stick to the terminology that we know. But it’s purely, like I said in the first meeting we had, it’s the execution and it’s the confidence within that to do that.”

The core of the Raiders offense is leaning towards smashmouth, but YAC and explosiveness in the passing game should be too. And Tucker has the skills to pay those bills.

Get rid of the predictable nature when it comes to Tucker and get him the ball on shorter routes like screens or quick slants and see if his speed can gas opposing defenses with yards after the catch (YAC) with him getting the ball quickly. While a lot of the speedy wide receiver’s contributions will be how defenses attack the Raiders offense, that can be said about the entire unit, but the team still gets the ball into playmaker hands — and Tucker can be another weapon. And what better time to find out with Las Vegas embarking on a tough-two game slate before the bye week. Up first is the Miami Dolphins on the road, then back home to Allegiant Stadium to square off with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Mayer meanwhile, is going to earn as much in-line blocking snaps as he will running routes with Johnson off the roster. We’ve seen it the last two weeks with the fullback out of action, Hardegree’s offense is moving tight ends in motion to act as a blocker to get Jacobs the necessary traction for yardage. Mayer struggled with blocking initially but has settled in and while he does have work to do — which rookie doesn’t? — he’s becoming an asset as a blocker and being used more as a move tight end outside on the hashes instead of next to his offensive linemen. But Las Vegas also has veteran Austin Hooper and Jesper Horsted in tow to also block and run routes, too.

“Yeah, I think both him and Hooper and Jesper, just all our tight ends, are really good players, really smart guys to be in the system. They have to know a lot in the run game and in the pass game, and Michael has done an awesome job,” O’Connell noted. “He works super hard. He’s coached very hard; he takes the game very seriously. He’s here early, he’s here late. He tries to act like a pro and we’re both rookies trying to figure it out together. So, it’s been fun to see his development.”