HENDERSON, Nev. — The Las Vegas Raiders already had a certifiable No. 1 running back, a Pro Bowler with a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons to begin his NFL career.
Josh Jacobs was a first-round pick in 2019 and is seemingly still on his ascent. So why would the defensively-deficient Raiders feel the need to add another seeming RB1 in free agency and pay Kenyan Drake like a starter, rather than address the need for a veteran free safety?
It has more to do with adding weapons than ignoring a need, from a certain point of view.
“He can run it, catch it and return it,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden told ESPN.com, when asked what Drake brought to the team despite the presence of Jacobs.
“He’s a threat to make a big play with or without it.”
And if the finances are what have you scratching you head — Drake got a two-year deal with $11 million guaranteed that can grow to $14.5 million with incentives — get in line. Because Jacobs — again, the unquestioned lead back — has base salaries totaling more than $3.7 million the next two seasons (though Jacobs has more than $11.9 million in guaranteed money in his rookie contract).
But keep in mind, Drake played last season under a transition tag worth more than $8 million, so he was going to get paid … by someone.
Also, while there are 13 running backs in the NFL scheduled to make at least $10 million in guaranteed money on their current contracts, the Raiders are the only team in the league with two of them, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Plus, Las Vegas is the only team in the last two drafts to use a top 25 pick on a running back. And while Drake is the seventh running back changing teams on a contract worth at least $10 million guaranteed in the last decade, there are not a lot of success stories there, from DeMarco Murray ($21 million to go to Philadelphia from Dallas in 2015) to Lamar Miller ($14 million to go to Houston from Miami in 2016) to Chris Ivory ($10 million to go to Jacksonville from the Jets in 2016) to Jerick McKinnon ($18 million to go to San Francisco from Minnesota) to Le’Veon Bell ($35 million to go to the Jets from Pittsburgh in 2019) to Melvin Gordon III ($13.5 million to go to Denver from the Chargers in 2020).
Still, there is no running back controversy in Sin City. Not with Drake and Jacobs being friendly thanks to both having played at Alabama, though not at the same time.
Plus, Jacobs has slowed down the stretch in his first two seasons, missing three of the Raiders’ last four games with a shoulder fracture as a rookie and averaging almost a full yard less per carry last season than he did in 2019, 4.8-3.9.
Consider Drake, then, an insurance policy. Albeit, an expensive one, right? And one that Gruden has been intrigued by for some time. Like, Drake suspects, since a Week 14 game in 2017, when Gruden called Drake’s breakout performance on Monday Night Football.
“Once my name kind of got going, Coach Gruden was just head and shoulders above everybody, in terms of interest in my ability to kind of come in and be a playmaker in a lot of facets of the game,” Drake said. “And I really relished in that opportunity to kind of come here and be able to play with Josh because I respect his game a lot, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual … so I feel like I had to jump at the opportunity to play with him and to be used in a multitude of ways to be able to just get the ball and make plays for this team.”
Drake, who turned 27 in January, is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard all-purpose season and has averaged 40 catches per season the last four years.
He rushed for a career-high 955 yards and 10 TDs for the Arizona Cardinals in 15 games last season.
Yeah, the versatility is what attracted Gruden. And the notion of not being a starter? That didn’t scare off the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Drake, who is three inches taller but nine pounds lighter than Jacobs, either. At least, not five-plus months before the season.
“Well, with my abilities, just being a starter … isn’t something that is a high priority, in terms of being out there for however many plays,” Drake said. “What Coach Gruden said [in] how he was going to use me was just being on the field in a multitude of ways — playing receiver, playing running back.
“Just having the ability to kind of use my versatility as a weapon in the open field is something that really spoke to me. And to kind of share that role with Josh, and him being obviously such a capable back, I feel like it spells success for this team.”