A recipe for success in the NFL – particularly in December and beyond – is to run the ball, control the clock, and have a stout defense on the other side of the ball.
Head Coach Jack Del Rio and the Oakland Raiders are hoping to have just that in 2016, and the team's ground attack will once again begin with running back Latavius Murray.
Murray enjoyed an impressive 2015 season – his first as a starter – starting all 16 games for the Silver and Black, rushing for 1,066 yards, six touchdowns, and earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl in the process.
However, the powerful back was asked to carry the burden of nearly the entire running game last season as another complementary back never materialized. For some context, after Murray's 1,066 yards, the second-leading rusher on the team was quarterback Derek Carr with 138 rushing yards.
If the Raiders want to take the next step in 2016 and challenge for the division, that simply can't be the case, so there will be a premium put on finding another running back who can consistently produce in conjunction with Murray.
Who are the candidates to fill that role? Let's find out as we preview the running back position – including the fullbacks – heading into 2016.
Running Back – George Atkinson III – Second Season – Notre Dame
After appearing in five games for the Raiders in 2014, Atkinson spent the majority of the 2015 season on the team's Practice Squad.
Throughout his career, Atkinson's explosiveness has never been in question; however, he has had a hard time consistently putting together quality runs in bunches.
The Notre Dame-product put together an impressive Offseason Workout Program this spring, and he'll have every opportunity to earn more reps once the team reports for training camp.
Another thing that Atkinson has working in his favor? He has experience returning kicks, and his straight-line speed makes him a dangerous return man.
Running Back – Roy Helu, Jr. – Sixth Season – University of Nebraska
One of the biggest offseason acquisitions the Silver and Black made coming into the 2015 season was Helu, but because of a nagging injury, the former Nebraska Cornhusker was never really able to find an offensive groove.
He finished the season with just 17 carries for 39 yards, adding nine receptions for 75 yards and one touchdown.
Throughout his career, Helu has shown that he can be a productive change-of-pace back, as well as a receiving threat out of the backfield, so if he were to return to form in 2016, his production would provide positive dividends for the Raiders' offense as a whole.
Running Back – Taiwan Jones – Sixth Season – Eastern Washington
Jones was originally drafted by the Silver and Black to play running back, and after a quick foray to the defensive side of the football to play cornerback in 2014, he permanently returned to running back for the 2015 season.
The dynamic running back finished the season with 16 carries for 74 yards, but his real value for the team was on special teams.
Not only was Jones once again one of the best gunners in the NFL, he also served as the team's primary kick returner, returning 31 kicks for 829 yards.
Going forward, Jones will likely be in the mix to once again return kicks, and his all-world speed always makes him a homerun threat either from the backfield or split out wide.
Fullback – Jamize Olawale – Fourth Season – North Texas
In 2016, Olawale saw the ball more than he had in the first three seasons of his career, and he didn't disappoint with the opportunities he was given.
He finished the season with a career-high 24 rushing attempts, averaging an impressive 4.6 yards per carry, and even finding the end zone for the first rushing touchdown of his career.
As effective as he was carrying the ball last season, Olawale's primary role was blocking and on special teams – both areas where he excels – and heading into 2016, I would expect to see much the same from him.
However, he showed last season that he can be an effective rusher of the football, which gives offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave another weapon to play with out of the backfield.
Running Back – Latavius Murray – Fourth Season – Central Florida
Murray was given the keys to the car last season, and he didn't disappoint in his first season as the featured back in Oakland.
He was a consistent threat out of the backfield, becoming the first Raider since 2010 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, and going into 2016 all indications are that he will once again be the bell cow back for the Silver and Black.
What Murray does need though is a little help. As mentioned earlier, Murray never enjoyed a complementary rusher to take some of the burden off him in 2015, but in 2016 the hope is that he will not asked to shoulder all the responsibility on the ground.
The Central Florida-product will be the focal point of the Raiders' rushing attack in the upcoming season, but if another running back could enter the fray, it would be a huge benefit for the entire rushing attack.
Fullback – Marcel Reece – Seventh Season – University of Washington
The versatile fullback appeared in 15 games last season for the Raiders, carrying the ball 10 times for 36 yards, as well as adding 30 receptions for 269 yards and three touchdowns.
Since he arrived in Oakland in 2009, Reece's unique skillset has given the Raiders flexibility in how to utilize him, so as the team prepares for the 2016 campaign it will be interesting to see where he lines up a majority of the time.
While Reece will attend Training Camp 2016, and is also eligible to participate in the team's preseason slate of games, he will miss the first three games of the season as he serves a league-induced suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Running Back – Jalen Richard – Rookie – Southern Mississippi
After wrapping up his four-year career at Southern Mississippi, Richard signed with the Silver and Black as an undrafted free agent.
Standing at 5'8" and tipping the scales at 207 pounds, Richard is built in the mold of running backs like Maurice Jones-Drew and Doug Martin, which presents an interesting complement to Murray.
Richard will have to put together an impressive Training Camp 2016 if he wants to find himself on the team's final roster, but don't discount his ability, because anything can happen once the pads go on.
Running Back – DeAndré Washington – Rookie – Texas Tech
Heading into training camp, Washington might be the most intriguing running back currently on the Raiders' roster.
The Silver and Black selected the physical back in the fifth round (No. 143 overall), and while many saw the Texas Tech-product as a prototypical third-down back, General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Jack Del Rio have repeatedly said that Washington is a complete player who they anticipate playing on all three downs.
Most NFL teams utilize multiple running backs throughout the season, so if Washington can emerge as a consistent threat to pair with Murray, the Raiders' offense will become all the more potent in 2016.
Keep An Eye On…
I'll be keeping a close eye on DeAndré Washington throughout Training Camp 2016.
All indications are that Latavius Murray will once again handle the bulk of the work for the Silver and Black, but there will certainly be snaps up for grabs that hopefully Washington can seize.
Another thing I'll be watching is how Murray responds in his second season as the starting running back.
The physical running back enjoyed a quality 2015 campaign, but now headed into 2016, teams will be game planning around stopping the Pro Bowl running back.
How will he respond? Only time will tell, but it's certainly something to be cognizant of.