The red zone performance of the Las Vegas Raiders has been subpar for several seasons. Despite ranking eighth, eleventh, and twelfth in total yards over the past three seasons, the offence has been frustrating due to its apparent ease of play. However, scoring from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line has been difficult.
During the 2020 season, the Raiders were at their most successful at scoring, converting 54.2% of their chances into touchdowns, which placed them 23rd in the league. In 2021, they had a season-low 49.2 per cent TD rate, which was fourth-worst, and under Josh McDaniels last year, they dropped to 48.9 per cent, which ranked 26th.
McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler set out to address this perennial issue with the 2023 NFL Draft. What’s their answer? Tight end for Notre Dame Michael Mayer.
As for the nearly 6’5″, 250-pound tight end, “he’s a bigger guy,” Ziegler remarked. Michael, the coach said, “is a guy that’s shown the ability to be a tough matchup on third down, be able to win on third down [and] be able to win in the red zone, which is critical plays in a football game.”
What the general manager witnessed on video was confirmed by the numbers. According to CBS Sports, Mayer scored nine touchdowns last season, six of which came on drives that started inside the opponent’s 20. Three more touchdowns were cut from 22 and 24 yards out on the very edge of the end zone. It has been a long since the Raiders had a dominant tight end in the red area, and his presence will undoubtedly help the offence maximize its possessions.
The Raiders were at their best in the red zone in the previous three years when Darren Waller had his most outstanding season. Waller had a career-high nine touchdown catches in 2020, which helped him earn a spot in the Pro Bowl. According to Fantasy Pros, six of those nine touchdowns came from within the opponent’s 20-yard line, which was tied for fourth most among tight ends.
As mentioned above, a large chunk of the drop in the percentages may be attributed to the fact that Las Vegas’ tight ends have only scored from the red zone four times in the last two seasons, with only one in 2021 and three in 2022. Two were scored by the ex-Pow Bowler and two by Foster Moreau, neither of whom will be on the team in 2023.
Mayer may be a key cog for the Silver and Black because of his excellent red zone output at Notre Dame and his prowess in making challenging receptions.
Last year, he had 17 contested catches, which was four more than runner-up Brock Bowers of Georgia and six more than anyone else, according to Pro Football Focus. The Golden Domer defended 65.4% of disputed targets, the fourth-highest percentage among players with at least ten contested marks at his position.
You can see in the videos below that he is very good at utilizing his body to come down with the ball, which is especially important in a confined part of the pitch, like the red zone.
Michael Mayer with a beautiful box out for a TD pic.twitter.com/AFfk4Fbscg— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
Mayer performs the route of a number, which is a fade from someone who lines up inside the numbers and goes toward the sideline post-snap, and the replay does a better job of displaying the entire route. However, what matters is how he contorts his body and utilizes his hands to keep the smaller defender on his back.
Former basketball players sometimes become excellent NFL tight ends because they know how to utilize their stature to their advantage and box out smaller players for rebounds.
Mayer does a fantastic job of battling through contact to make a spectacular catch on the ground.
Michael Mayer with excellent body control to make a contested grab pic.twitter.com/lky0xwI46G— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
This second one doesn’t take place in the end zone or lead to a score, but it does highlight the Notre Dame graduate’s body control, which aids him in making contested catches.
Given USC’s zone coverage, the quarterback defends his tight end from the corner by releasing the ball higher than the numbers. However, the intersection will still contact Mayer, so he shifts his body so that the ball hits his back instead.
Again, he has excellent body control and does a superb job of protecting the ball in contact.
I winced when Michael Mayer caught his pass, hell of a grab pic.twitter.com/py7YaI1WeP— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
Plays like the one seen above are prevalent in the red zone and need a rigid receiver to make the grab. Fortunately, this clip is just another example of Mayer’s prowess at protecting the ball with his body and bracing himself for contact.
Beautiful concentration catch from Michael Mayer pic.twitter.com/ELXdlG1lCn— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 3, 2023
Mayer’s ability to make concentration catches is a significant factor in his success while catching disputed balls. Here, the defensive back interferes with Mayer’s line of sight by putting his hand in the passing lanes. Nonetheless, he manages to get the grab and keep fighting through the contact to score six points.
Can Michael Mayer solve the red zone problems for the Raiders? Time will tell, but his resume and character attribute point to him being useful in some capacity.