Superior tactics win battles which leads to winning the war, and yet, throughout the “dark ages” of Oakland Raiders history -the years 2002 to 2015 to be exact- a failing draft strategy set the franchise back for years. Things have changed for the Raiders however, as a tactical shift in how the draft is approached is paying off dividends in a major way under general manager Reggie McKenzie.
What Went Wrong
The Raiders last trip to the Super Bowl was in 2002 and that roster was made up in true “Al Davis fashion” as he assembled a collection of veterans with something to prove. A few homegrown players but primarily a crew largely assembled through free agency as the late Davis was getting up in age. Feeling as though he was running out of time you could say he approached the draft looking for a workout warrior, a savior, or that one missing piece; great for the short-term.
A betting man would wager the farm on the fastest time in the combine being drafted by the Raiders; regardless of position. In fairness to Mr. Davis his ability to spot talent was never in doubt as his resume speaks for itself but unfortunately the business of the NFL and the way the game was played changed and Davis was not able to grow with these changes and the franchise suffered because of that.
For nearly two decades the Raiders have had a “Top-10” draft pick which is an award for being one of the ten worst teams in the league and what’s the prize you ask? The chance to pick a “franchise altering”-level player in each of those drafts.
The Raiders were a collection of greek tragedies with years’ worth of rosters, composed of players with high level individual abilities, in particular being really fast, who for whatever reason absolutely couldn’t play together.
A collection of college football’s top talent has worn the Silver and Black since 2002 with names such as Phillip Buchanon, Nnamdi Asomugha, Robert Gallery, Fabian Washington, Michael Huff, JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Rolando McClain; all the Raiders first round picks in that horrid stretch.
All of these were first round picks that were supposed to be the next big thing, unfortunately, only a few of these top draft picks made it to a second contract with the Raiders. The only player out of this group to make a Pro Bowl with the Raiders was Asomugha who for a time, was widely considered one of the best cornerbacks in football.
The Turning Point for the Raiders
Hiring a general manager for the first time in team history was the pivotal moment as the team had gotten absolutely nowhere with drafting the “best player available”, the team found itself vastly over the cap and short on talent. Enter Reggie McKenzie; disciple of Ron Wolf.
Building through the draft is what champions do and it’s the most effective way to cultivate talent while keeping player salaries at a minimum. It promotes goodwill between players and the franchise as players are rewarded for production and only a few free agents are brought in to help. This is the Green Bay Packers’ “way” and it’s yielded champions, hall of famers, perennial contention meaning a whole lot of winning.
McKenzie’s methods have garnered him many accolades such as being the first African-American to win NFL Executive of the Year award in 2016. Thanks in large to McKenzie, the Raiders have completed a rebuild in five years. Entering year three of head coach Jack del Rio’s tenure, the Raiders are favorites to win the AFC West and be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Fast forward to today as the 2017 NFL draft takes place in 11 days and the Raiders no longer are in a position needing to draft the “best player available” regardless of position. Instead they find themselves in the excellent position of utilizing the draft to secure needs and bolster depth.
Modern Raiders’ Drafting
The Raiders drafted their champion in 2014; actually they drafted two. Linebacker Khalil Mack was McKenzie’s second first round draft pick and since then he’s been runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year, selected to two Pro Bowls and in 2016 won Defensive Player of the Year. The second, the heartbeat of the franchise, quarterback Derek Carr was the 2016 “Castrol Edge Clutch Performer” and now is considered one of the “elite” quarterbacks in the league.
The Raiders are looking to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Oakland in 2017 and after being silent for much of free agency, the Raiders have set their sights on winning the toughest division in football. Doing so calls for McKenzie to draft defenders nearly exclusively but if anyone is up to the task it’s McKenzie who is a scout at heart.
A good scout is worth his weight in gold, be it war or talent acquisition, so knowing what to plan for in advance is vital to achieving success. Originating as a scout, McKenzie is a shrewd talent evaluator who “sniffs it out like a bloodhound”. He will leave no tape unwatched, no coach unquestioned, and no small school unexplored as finding talent is this man’s specialty.
In the last two years the raiders have sent 13 men to the Pro Bowl, six in 2015 and a franchise high seven in 2016. This doesn’t include the many Raiders who could have made the team but got “snubbed”. The proof’s in the pudding and it will be a matter of time before the Raiders will get to the Super Bowl, and when they get there it’ll be because history has repeated itself and the Raiders are now on the cusp of the NFL’s cutting edge.