While many overlooked the signing of running back Devontae Booker during the Las Vegas Raiders offseason, the fresh and lightly used runner has brought a much-needed dynamic to an already stellar running game.
Initially, running back Devontae Booker had an uncertain 2020 outlook. At the beginning of training camp, he tested positive for COVID-19, which jeopardized his path to a spot on the 53-man roster. Three months later, the University of Utah product has changed the way we view the Raiders ground attack.
Sometimes, a change of scenery can be the right thing…We’ve rejuvenated some players from other teams before, and we’d like to take pride in doing that again. I think he’s in a great role for him right now. – Jon Gruden on Devontae Booker
Coming into the season, most fans expected running back Josh Jacobs to rack up rushing yards as a one-man show on the ground. Some questioned whether the Raiders had an adequate backup if the second-year ball-carrier needed a lighter load or missed time because of an injury.
Devontae Booker garnered some of Jacobs’ spotlight and filled his role as the No. 2 back adequately. He’s exceeded expectations through the first 10 weeks of the season.
Averaging 20.2 carries per contest, Jacobs remains the workhorse back, but the Raiders rank seventh on the ground and are tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns (12) partially because of Booker’s production in spot duty.
Viewed as an underachiever through four years with the Denver Broncos, Booker joined the Silver and Black and found his niche in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense alongside Jacobs. He allows the Raiders to exercise some flexibility in how they attack opponents.
On Wednesday, Gruden relished the fact that the Raiders have continuously picked up players who didn’t pan out at their previous stops but flipped them into solid contributors. He believes Booker fits into that mold (starts at 6:46):
“Sometimes, a change of scenery can be the right thing…We’ve rejuvenated some players from other teams before, and we’d like to take pride in doing that again. I think he’s in a great role for him right now,” Gruden said.
Heading into the 2020 campaign, Booker had the same number of touchdowns and fumbles (seven). In 61 games with the Broncos, he started just six times, and the team eventually phased him out of the offense. The Utah product ran the ball twice for nine yards and caught six passes for 57 yards in 2019.
On Tuesday, Devontae Booker joined the Silver and Black Today show on Raider Nation Radio 920 in Las Vegas and opened up about his difficult time in Denver. He lost some joy in playing the game during a rough period:
Apparently, Booker feels comfortable in Vegas. On top of that, he has a defined role, which is enough for him and suits Gruden’s offense. As a result, the fifth-year veteran has performed at his best since 2016 when he accumulated 877 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns.
The One-Two Punch No One Saw Coming
At the beginning of the season, the Raiders may have held their breath if Jacobs suffered an injury. Now, we can see Booker has the burst, a little bit of wiggle and the vision to handle a bulk of the workload.
Of course, ideally, the Raiders want to see their top two ball-carriers healthy, but they can lighten Jacobs’ touches if he’s banged up. In three out of nine outings, Booker has rushed for 62 or more yards and led the team on the ground (68 yards) through a Week 8 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Devontae Booker handled most of the work late in the previous game against his former team, but this is what you’d ask of a backup running back who’s capable of closing games. Gruden can trust him to bleed the clock, protect the football, and preserve the featured back. With that said, Booker has proved he’s more than just a reliever.
Playoff Football Down the Stretch
Booker averages 6.2 yards per carry behind an offensive line that’s constantly gone through changes this season. The starting unit has yet to play a full game together in 2020.
Even so, Booker has ripped off big runs when given the opportunity to take handoffs. For the year, he has four rushes for 20-plus yards, two of them 23-yard touchdowns. The 28-year-old logged a career-long 43-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5.
Because of the injuries across the offensive line, Gruden acknowledged that he’s made adjustments to the available personnel (starts 3:20):
“Any time you change personnel, you change gears,” Gruden said. “We’ve had five different right tackles that might be a world record after nine games…We have played a little bit different the last couple of weeks than maybe we did the first couple of weeks. Hopefully, that’s a good thing down the stretch.”
Denzelle Good and Brandon Parker have put together solid performances in place of Richie Incognito, Trent Brown and even Sam Young when he’s unable to finish games as a replacement at right tackle. Jacobs and Booker deserve praise as well.
Since Week 8, the Raiders have averaged 190.7 rushing yards. Without their starting tackles and left guard in the previous two games, they have found a way to protect quarterback Derek Carr from excessive hits and win games.
Carr had thrown for 261 or more yards in five of the team’s first six contests. The Raiders offense resembled a unit that would have to throw the ball all over the field to compensate for a porous defense.
Over the last three outings, Carr has thrown for fewer than 166 yards in part because of drops and missed opportunities. Yet Vegas eclipsed 30 points in each of the previous two contests by steamrolling defenses on the ground.
With Devontae Booker’s contributions, the Raiders can alter offensive game plans based on their opponent. Quality playoff clubs can beat the opposition in multiple ways.
Going into a crucial matchup against the Chiefs’ 29th-ranked run defense, don’t be surprised to see Gruden extend his streak of run-dominant game plans regardless of left tackle Kolton Miller’s status.
The Raiders may choose to win the time-of-possession battle and force a weaker defensive front to stop what’s worked for them during their three-game win streak.
Gruden should avoid a predictable approach with timely shots downfield, but if the Chiefs cannot stop a ground attack featuring two capable ball-carriers, why move away from it?
Unlike an explosive aerial attack that needs pass protection, timing on routes and reliable hands at wide receiver, Vegas can muddy up games and simply bludgeon opponents on the ground despite its ever-changing personnel in the trenches.
If the Silver and Black make it back to the postseason, Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker can even the playing field in cold-weather matchups in the event this club must travel to places like Buffalo or Pittsburgh in January.
As the Raiders go into playoff mode amid a chase for a berth, they have a fully-loaded ground attack that features a pair of ball-carriers capable of winning games when the passing attack doesn’t click. Regardless of how they choose to attack the Chiefs Sunday, Jacobs and Booker should be heavily involved against one of the worst run defenses in the league.