Health, pass-catching key to Raiders' Josh Jacobs building on rookie success

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HENDERSON, Nev. -- Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs was in full stride Sunday when he caught a pass from Derek Carr in the right flat and kicked it into another gear as he spied safety Damarious Randall closing in along the sideline.

Speeding up, Jacobs faked that he was about to lower his left shoulder into the chest of a surprised Randall. But this was not a padded practice. Not yet. It was a 7-on-7 drill.

So Jacobs pulled up and sped off. He was feeling it.

"Boom," Jacobs yelled in Randall's direction as he sprinted to the end zone. "I just retired you. You're going to have to make a grown-man decision."

Randall laughed.

"Your ankle," Randall cracked, "will make that decision for you."

Indeed, it was Jacobs' first practice since the media had been allowed in four days prior, and while Raiders coach Jon Gruden insisted Jacobs was not "out," that he was doing work behind the scenes where reporters could not peer, the message was obvious.

For Jacobs to stack on to last year's rookie breakout season, he simply needs to stay healthy.

"We need our feature back down the stretch," Gruden said. "We were in a playoff stretch last year and didn't have him. I think he's got to stay wire-to-wire healthy and we have to get more out of him in the passing game, more on the field on third down. He had a great year last year and we expect more of him from this year."

Indeed. Despite missing three of the Raiders' last four games with a right shoulder fracture suffered in Week 7, Jacobs still finished with a franchise-rookie record 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns.

He also caught 20 passes for 166 yards, so his stated goal of catching at least 60 passes this season shook the fantasy football world. The most receptions a running back has had in a single season for the Raiders are the 91 Charlie Garner had in 2002. And the most catches by a running back in a Gruden offense are the 75 by Michael Pittman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003.

No matter, Jacobs is feeling good, in more ways than one -- even after missing those practices early on. He participated in Monday's first padded practice, and while he appeared to tweak his left ankle after getting rolled up on in a pass-protection drill, he never left the field.

"That's just the schedule that the trainers have me on right now," Jacobs said after Day 1 of media viewing. "Some days I go in, some days I do less than others.

"I don't feel the shoulder [injury] at all. I've been doing heavy reps all summer, multiple reps, and I haven't felt it at all. For the most part, this is the best my body's felt. I'm lighter than I was last year and everything. So, it's been pretty smooth."

Though maybe not as smooth as things went for him last October and November, when he was the NFL's offensive rookie of the month two months running.

He also set a Raiders rookie record with five 100-yard rushing games on the season, and his 1,150 rushing yards were the fourth most in NFL history for players 21 years or younger.

And after Jacobs' 686 yards after contact ranked fifth in the NFL, his 70 forced missed tackles led the league and he was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl, what homework did the Raiders assign Jacobs this offseason?

"We want you to become a complete running back; we need you to get better at route running out of the backfield, as well as route running from an extended formation," Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson recalled of his conversation with Jacobs.

"And he can always get better in protection. That's a big part as well. I think it's difficult for a rookie to come in and master protection in one season, so we expected an improvement in that area as well."

With homework comes grades, right?

So after one of the most accomplished rookie seasons in franchise history, the No. 24 overall pick of the 2019 draft gave himself a B for his body of work.

"There's a lot of yards that I felt like I left on the table," Jacobs said. "It's a lot of plays, and I feel like I could've contributed more.

"I don't think I accomplished what I set out to do. I think I put a little dent in what I wanted to prove, but I think I have a long way to go."

Sounds like a sound, grown-man decision.