It’s no secret that the Las Vegas Raiders have struggled in the red zone over the last several years. The offense has been frustrating as they seemingly have no issues moving the ball down the field, ranking eighth, 11th and 12th in total yards over the last three seasons. But putting the ball in the endzone inside the 20 has been a struggle.
The 2020 campaign was when the Raiders were best in the scoring area, turning about 54.2 percent of their opportunities into touchdowns but that ranked just 23rd in the league, according to TeamRankings.com. They hit a low point in 2021 with a meager 49.2 percent TD rate—fourth-worst—and the struggles continued last season with Josh McDaniels calling the shots; 48.9 percent, 26th overall.
So, during the 2023 NFL Draft, McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler looked to solve this long-standing problem. Their solution? Notre Dame tight end, Michael Mayer.
“He’s a bigger guy,” Ziegler said of the nearly 6’5” and 250-pound tight end. “... Michael is a guy that’s shown the ability to be a tough matchup on third down, be able to win on third down [and] be able to win in the red zone, which are obviously critical plays in a football game.”
The stats back up what the general manager saw on tape, too. Last season, Mayer scored nine touchdowns, six of which came from inside the 20, per CBS Sports. The other three TDs were just outside of the scoring area at distances of 22 and 24 (twice) yards out. Clearly, he can help the offense maximize its possessions as it’s been a while since the Raiders have had a dominant tight end in the red zone.
It’s no coincidence that in the three years referenced above, Darren Waller’s best season correlates with when the Raiders were best in the red zone. In 2020, Waller made the Pro Bowl due in part to a career-high nine touchdown catches. Six of those nine were from inside the 20 which was tied for the fourth-most among tight ends, according to Fantasy Pros.
However, partially due to Waller’s injuries, Las Vegas’ tight ends have put points on the board in the red zone just four times in the past two seasons combined with one in 2021 and three in 2022, hence the dip in the percentages above. The former Pow Bowler and Foster Moreau accounted for two each, and neither player is still on the roster heading into the 2023 campaign.
Beyond his impressive red zone production at Notre Dame, another reason why Mayer can be part of the solution for the Silver and Black is he’s excellent at making contested catches.
Per Pro Football Focus, he led all FBS tight ends with 17 contested grabs last season, four more than Georgia’s Brock Bowers, who was in second place, and six more than anyone else. The Golden Domer came down with 65.4 percent of contested targets which was the fourth-highest rate of players at his position with at least 10 such targets.
He’s excellent at using his body to come down with the ball, which is often necessary when playing in a condensed area of the field like the red zone, and can be seen in the clips below.
Michael Mayer with a beautiful box out for a TD pic.twitter.com/AFfk4Fbscg— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
The replay does a better job of showing the entire route as Mayer runs a numbers route which is basically, a fade from someone who lines up inside the numbers and works toward the sideline post-snap. But the important part is how he uses his hands and contorts his body to keep the smaller defender on his back.
This is why a lot of good NFL tight ends are former basketball players because they know how to box someone out to get a rebound or, in this case, use their size to their advantage and make a touchdown grab.
Mayer also does an excellent job of fighting through contact to secure the catch through the ground.
Michael Mayer with excellent body control to make a contested grab pic.twitter.com/lky0xwI46G— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
This next one doesn’t happen in the red zone nor does it result in a touchdown, but it does show off the Notre Dame product’s body control and how that helps him make contested catches.
With USC running zone coverage, the quarterback has a tight window to throw into and does a good job of protecting his tight end from the corner by placing the ball toward the top of the numbers. But the hit is still coming, that’s inevitable, and watch how Mayer adjusts his body so that the corner is making contact with his back instead of the ball.
That’s impressive body control and, once again, he does an excellent job of holding onto the ball through contact.
I winced when Michael Mayer caught his pass, hell of a grab pic.twitter.com/py7YaI1WeP— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
You have to be tough to make catches over the middle in the NFL, especially in the red zone where plays like the one above are common. Luckily, Mayer is good at bracing himself for contact and protecting the ball by turning his body into the defender and this clip serves as another example of that.
Beautiful concentration catch from Michael Mayer pic.twitter.com/ELXdlG1lCn— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
Another reason why Mayer excels on contested targets is he’s excellent at making concentration catches. On the out route here, the defensive back gets his hand in the passing lane and right in Mayer’s eyes. However, he’s still able to come down with the grab and fight through contact to put six points on the board.
So, can Michael Mayer fix the Raiders’ red zone woes? Time will tell but he certainly has the stats and traits to suggest he’ll at least be part of the solution.