In the past three drafts, the Oakland Raiders have selected potential team fortunes’ changers at offensive key positions—quarterback JaMarcus Russell, tight end Zach Miller, and running back Michael Bush in 2007, running back Darren McFadden in 2008, and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2009—in an attempt of returning their past glory days to the storied franchise.
While the jury is still out on how those players will pan out, and with the majority of Fantasy Football Owners concentrating their search on established players, a May 8 free agent acquisition by the team went unnoticed by many. The team signed 16-year veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal to a one-year deal.
The 5’11” Neal could very well be the catalyst on this normally anemic Oakland offense that will propel it to uncharted territory. His track record indicates that he could at least improve their 10th-ranked rushing offense from 2008 where Justin Fargas was their best rusher with 853 yards and one touchdown scored.
To put that into perspective, it is essential to crunch some past statistics.
When the New Orleans Saints drafted running back Lorenzo Neal in the 1993 NFL Draft with the 89th overall pick, little did they know that after a short two-game career at the position, he would later become a full-time fullback—thanks to a season-ending ankle injury that crippled his ability to run effectively at a consistent pace. He played for the Saints until 1996 before signing with the New York Jets in 1997; and that was when the magic began.
In his single season with the team, he aided Adrian Murrell in rushing for 1,086 yards. The following season, he became a Tampa Bay Buccaneer in virtue of a trade for a fifth-round pick. Even though Neal started just one game that season—but appeared in all 16—his reputation of blocking for 1,000-yard runners stayed intact when Warrick Dunn rushed for 1,026 yards.
After his release from Tampa, with his journeyman status beginning to grow, Neal signed with the Tennessee Titans, where he played for two seasons. While there, his lane-creating ability helped Eddie George rush for 1,304 yards in 1999, and 1,509 in the 2000 season, in which George scored 14 rushing touchdowns.
Once more, Neal changed zip codes and landed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001. His hard work paved the way for Corey Dillon’s 1,315 yards that year and for 1,311 yards the following season.
In 2003, he signed with the San Diego Chargers, where he would last five seasons (the longest tenure of his career). In his first year there, he was key in helping LaDainian Tomlinson account for 1,645 rushing yards. Tomlinson became the fifth RB Neal helped produce a 1000-yard season. The trend continued in 2005 when Tomlinson enjoyed a 1,335-yard campaign.
The 2006 season was the 10th straight (11th overall, as he helped Mario Bates in 1995 collect 1,065 yards from scrimmage of which 951 of the rushing variety while in New Orleans) in which Neal blocked for a 1,000-yard runner. Meanwhile, his “Iron man’ legacy for consecutive games played stopped at 221 in week 14 of the 2007 season—a season in which Tomlinson rushed again for more than 1,000 yards.
Right before the 2008 season began, Neal switched teams and went on to help the Baltimore Ravens for one year.
To analyze further the importance of Neal’s seemingly irrelevant work and to determine what a difference maker he was, we need to look at his last two seasons, the last one with the Chargers in 2007 and his latest with the Ravens in 2008.
Lorenzo Neal’s blocking while a member of the 2007 Chargers led the team to a seventh-ranked rushing offense with 2,039 yards. The Baltimore Ravens ranked 16th in the same category with 1,797 yards.
When Neal switched to a Ravens’ uniform in the 2008 offseason, the NFL's casual fan didn’t see the move as an impacting one. However, the move was instrumental in reversing each involved team’s fortunes in the rushing department.
The previously seventh-ranked Chargers rushing attack fell to the 20th spot in the league in 2008, producing 1,726 yards, while the previously 16th-ranked Baltimore’s ground offense skyrocketed all the way to fourth place when the trio of Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice amassed 2,376 yards running the ball.
His presence was also felt in the rushing touchdowns department as Baltimore increased the number of rushing TDs from 11 in 2007 (18th in the league) to 20 in 2008, which was fifth best in the NFL.
The stage is set in Oakland for a magical run, with the talented Darren McFadden coming back strong from an injury-plagued ‘08 rookie season, a likewise healthy Michael Bush who showed some potential last season, and with veteran Justin Fargas to readily fill and take advantage of the cavernous holes that Neal should provide.
It looks as if a seasoned veteran such as Neal would be the missing ingredient for this new three-headed monster that is taking shape in Oakland, who ranked 28th in rushing TDs last season with nine, to soar them into Fantasy Football worthiness.
Fantasy Owners might want to raise the Raiders RBs a few spots in their cheat sheets and draft them as true sleepers. An educated guess of where they should be drafted, by taking into account their revamped running game, would be to select McFadden around the third round, give Bush a fifth to sixth round consideration, and to take a flyer on Fargas in the late rounds for insurance and depth purposes.
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