Raiders move for Zay Jones speaks to belief in roster

Oakland Raiders

By trading for an upgrade at receiver, the Oakland Raiders showed an inner belief in their roster, and the hope to reach the playoffs.

The Zay Jones deal amplified the absence of Antonio Brown—in a good way.

On Monday, the Oakland Raiders made a minor trade with the Buffalo Bills, one likely lost to most football fans on the league’s transaction wire save for the regional fans of both teams involved. The deal’s specifics involved shipping Bills wideout Zay Jones to the Raiders for a fifth round pick 17 months from now, all the way in 2021.

I told you it was minor.

For the Raiders, Jones represents a nice low-risk, low-investment opportunity to see a potential return on a former second round wideout with a change of scenery. There are reasons to believe in Jones at this stage, and the Raiders are taking a reasonable chance here. It’s impossible to hate the deal and its plausible it might pay off as a pleasant surprise.

Beyond that, however, it’s not so much about what Jones could provide as what he represents at this point. While the Raiders certainly hope Jones can make good on his second round draft grade, the reality is that he’s insurance at this point for a team that needs bodies at wide receiver. Yep, the Raiders don’t have enough of them.

If you’re tracking, the last two months have featured the Raiders wide receiver position being the center ring of their media circus to a position scrambling for live bodies. It’s an interesting shift that deserves more attention because, despite the drama and dearth of talent, the Raiders are doing something they haven’t done in a long time: they’re winning.

Perspective Shift

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Raiders are 3-2 with a reputation much closer to “laughingstock” than “respectable franchise.” For those watching closely, however, the Raiders are looking much better as they prepare to make a new home in Las Vegas.

Over the last two weeks, they’ve taken out the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. The fan bases of each loser will make up their reasons (injuries, officials, London), but there’s no denying that Oakland sits alone in second place in the AFC West, just behind the Kansas City Chiefs and ahead of the L.A. Chargers and Denver Broncos—each of whom received much more respect and buzz in the preseason.

Coming into this year, the Raiders imported the single biggest talent shift in the NFL with the trade for Antonio Brown. Yet when things went awry, the familiar jokes re-shared year after year were once again brought out of the closet—like Christmas decorations out of the attic at the same time each holiday season.

Fast forward five weeks into a new season and the Raiders are looking much better than anyone thought they might. And they’re doing it with a serious lack of talent—or even healthy bodies—at the one position that received all the attention just a month or more ago.

Help Wanted

When Antonio Brown figured his way out of Oakland, the Raiders were left with a rather uninspiring cast of characters at the position. If you’ve not been paying attention since Brown left, just know it’s gotten much worse.

Alongside Antonio Brown, the Raiders were intent on completely revitalizing the position with veteran additions. While Mike Mayock would use the team’s highest draft assets to largely add speed and impact to the defense, save for running back Joshua Jacobs, the Raiders would also sign Tyrell Williams and J.J. Nelson to round out the receiving corps for a new trio atop the depth chart.

Williams was brought in to accompany Brown as another intermediate and deep passing asset after being crowded out of impact production with the Chargers. He was given a surprising four-year, $44 million deal to join the Raiders with the hope that his breakout 1,000-yard season in 2016 was a sign of what he could do when names like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Melvin Gordon, Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates weren’t around.

Nelson spent his rookie contract with the Arizona Cardinals as a former fifth round pick and he signed a one-year deal to join the Raiders this fall. It was a smart yet risky attempt on his part to take less security for the chance to show a greater range of his skills on a needy offense like the Raiders.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, neither player was available on Sunday. Williams has been nursing a foot injury, while Nelson has only played in two games this year due to a knee problem. Furthermore, Dwayne Harris, a returner and receiver, was also ruled inactive for Week 5.

In their places, the Raiders started Trevor Davis and Hunter Renfrow at wide receiver. Davis was just acquired for a sixth round pick in 2020 from the Packers three weeks ago, and Renfrow was this year’s fifth round pick. Behind them were rookie free agent Keelan Doss and practice squad signing Marcell Ateman.

Together the Raiders entire receiving corps walked into Week 5 with a total of 16 receptions on the year against a celebrated Chicago Bears defense. They walked out with a win.

No Heroes Here

Let’s be clear: the Raiders did not beat the Bears because of the talent of their wide receivers. Given the concern at the position, the Raiders did what any team would do and emphasized the running game and relied heavily on tight ends to move the chains in passing situations (along with plenty of short passes out of the backfield). Darren Waller led the team in targets and Foster Moreau was right behind. Both are tight ends.

Still it’s fascinating, at least to me, that a team who earned national headlines for the talent and subsequent drama at the position became the subject of jokes when that talent left. In the meantime, the Raiders have put their heads down and put up a couple of impressive efforts right in a row against two teams with legitimate postseason hopes.

The Raiders are winning and they’re not only doing so without Antonio Brown, they’re doing it without the complements they wanted to surround him with. Given the questionable status of both Nelson and Williams on Sunday, both should be back soon. The addition of Zay Jones to the mix will also help bolster the depth chart and it’s possible this position is solid for the season’s second half.

Right now, however, the very need to trade for Zay Jones is a heartening sign of a team able to pull together after the circus has left town to do the only thing that really matters in the NFL: to win games.

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