LOS ANGELES — During the Oakland Raiders preseason opener last week against the Detroit Lions, undrafted rookie running back Chris Warren III got a call down on the sidelines.
In the midst of an 86-yard performance, Warren heard from Delissa Lynch, the mother of his teammate Marshawn. She gave him a pep talk.
“He started to run physical. He started to learn that, ‘I am 255 pounds,'” David Carr said this week. “Those are instances where you see Marshawn almost turn back into the field of play to put his pads on somebody. Chris is starting to get that. He’s starting to figure it out.”
Warren, the son of a three-time Pro Bowler who rushed for 7,696 yards in his 11 NFL seasons, was the victim of injury and a coaching change at Texas, but what was his loss may be Oakland’s gain. On Saturday, with Lynch and Doug Martin on the shelf against the Los Angeles Rams in the Raiders’ second preseason game, Warren rushed for 110 yards on 18 carries in a 19-15 loss., continuing what’s been a strong training camp as he pursues a spot on the 53-man roster.
“He’s a good back, isn’t he?” said head coach Jon Gruden after the game. “I mean, he’s run for almost 200 yards in two weeks. I know he’s not playing against the regulars, but he’s not playing with the regulars, either.”
“It’s about showing that I can play in the league, making the most of my opportunities,” Warren said.
Warren was a high school All-American when he signed with Texas, where he set the single-game freshman rushing record with 276 yards and four touchdowns against Texas Tech in 2015. A knee injury forced him to miss most of his sophomore season.
He played in just four games, and rushed for 386 yards on 62 carries before being sidelined, allowing D’Onta Foreman to become the primary back and rush for 2,028 yards. That year earned Foreman a third-round NFL Draft selection by the Houston Texans.
Then Charlie Strong was fired, and Warren, on the comeback from his knee injury and expecting to be the primary back with Foreman’s departure, was switched from running tack to an H-back/tight end role under new head coach Tom Herman.
Warren’s final year in Austin, he played in 12 games and tied his career high with 71 carries, but rushed for only 314 yards, while catching 18 passes for 229 and scoring a total of eight touchdowns. Scouts didn’t quite know where to put him, and so, after four other Longhorns went in the draft, Warren was left out in the cold.
Gruden knew exactly what to do with him. Reggie McKenzie and Gruden, who has long coveted big backs — dating back to his first stint in Oakland — picked up the 6-foot-2, 247-pound Warren as an undrafted free agent, and he’s gotten quite a bit of run in each of the first two games, with 31 total carries.
Warren didn’t expect to play as much as he did on Saturday, but knew with the starters (and many of the primary backups) out, he would be getting more run than he did against the Lions last week.
With 2:42 left in the third quarter, Warren ran in a three-yard touchdown, becoming the first Raider to score a touchdown at the Los Angeles Coliseum since Dec. 24, 1994, when Alexander Wright caught a 65-yard pass from Vince Evans in the Los Angeles Raiders’ final home game before moving back to Oakland. He was the first Raider running back to score in the Coliseum since Harvey Williams caught a five-yard pass from Jeff Hostetler on Dec. 11, 1994. Warren was also the first Raiders back to wear No. 34 to score a touchdown since Bo Jackson.
With first-and-10 at the Rams’ 39 early in the fourth quarter, Warner turned the corner around left tackle and nearly got to the end zone, were it not for a very good angle taken by safety Afolabi Laguda down at the six.
Gruden wanted to get even more of Warren when he called a handoff on a two-point conversion with 9:52 to go in the game, but that run failed, through no fault Warren’s.
“The last two-point play, I changed my mind,” Gruden said. “I was going to throw it, but I wanted to give Chris Warren a look, and I don’t think we blocked the point of attack pretty well. I don’t second-guess that. I wish it would have worked better.”
Warren still needs to improve his work without the ball — pass blocking and blitz pick up — and that’s been a constant throughout camp.
“We know he can run, we know he’s powerful and fast and elusive, but he’s got to get a lot better without the football to be an NFL back,” Gruden said.
“Mostly just the reads,” Warren elaborated. “You’re supposed to read from the ‘Y’ in. Just making sure that I’m not biting on a fake or a delayed blitz and getting out into my route. Just quicker recognition.”
Even with that demerit, Gruden still seems like, when it comes time to decide on a third (and maybe fourth) back, Warren will be right there with Jalen Richard.
“He’s a big, powerful back that’s taking care of the ball,” Gruden said.
“I mean, Chris is just a powerful back,” said quarterback Connor Cook. “Strong, carries the rock very well, and everyone’s real happy with how he’s playing.”
“I’m just tired,” Warren said after his 18-carry day against the Rams. “That’s what happens when you play a full game. I’m not sore or anything I just have to get ready to look at the film and get back on my studying.”
Asked whether he’s proved himself yet, he answered in the negative.
“Not yet, we’re still in preseason,” he said. “Coaches aren’t showing their full hands. I believe that I’m showing that I’m capable but I don’t believe I’ve proved anything yet. I still need to go back out there and prove some more stuff.”