Everyone loves the first round of the NFL draft when teams choose the biggest names coming out of college. Al Davis chose 555 players in his long career, from Tony Lorick to Terrelle Pryor, including Marcus Allen, Jack Tatum, Tim Brown, Sebastian Janikowski, and many other great Raiders in Round One.
Yet he, his scouts, and general managers also found many stars in Round Two, many of them small-school or obscure players who went on to stellar careers. More recently, the Oakland Raiders have added three intriguing players to the defense from Round Two in the last three drafts—Mario Edwards in 2015, Jihad Ward in 2016, and Obi Melifonwu this year.
With that said, here are the 13 best second-round picks of the Al Davis era (1964-2011).
Dan Conners – 1964
Al Davis’ first draft came in 1964, at a time when the NFL and AFL were separate leagues with separate drafts of the same players, so teams had to compete to sign their picks. Which got Al’s blood running like nothing else. Davis’ first pick, fullback Tony Lorick, elected to sign with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. (Actually, Al signed him first, but Commissioner Pete Rozelle awarded him to the senior league.) Oakland took quick and instinctive defensive tackle Dan Conners out of the University of Miami in Round Two and converted him to middle linebacker. The first player Davis ever signed, Conners anchored the Raider defense for 11 years and set a team record for linebackers with five TDs (later exceeded by Rod Martin’s six)–three interceptions and two fumble returns. His 15 interceptions are still the most for a Raider linebacker. He was a three-time AFL All-Star.
“Dan Conners was on of the smartest linebackers in the history of the Raiders’ franchise,” related teammate Tom Flores. “Dan wasn’t fast or strong, but he was quick. His biggest strength was his ability to be in the right place at the right time…To opponents, he was a pain in the ass.”
Conners played in 141 games for Oakland, plus another 13 playoff games, including starting Super Bowl II, the Immaculate Reception game, and the Sea of Hands game (his next to last). He stuck with the team so long even after screaming at Al Davis after the last game of an injury-plagued rookie year.
“I told him, ‘I hate this, I hate you, I hate everything,’” Conners said to Raiders beat writer Paul Gutierrez. “I unloaded both barrels on him.” Davis “grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and gave me a big hug. ‘I love that, kid,’” Davis said of his passion. “I love you, kid.”
Fred Biletnikoff – 1965
The son of Russian immigrants, Biletnikoff was Florida State University’s first consensus All-American football payer and scored a TD in FSU’s first win over the Florida Gators. Like many players of his era, Biletnikoff played both ways, and actually held the FSU record for longest interception return (99 yards) until Deion Sanders broke it in 1985. He led the nation in receiving yards (1179) and TD’s (15) as a senior, capping his career with a legendary 4-TD performance in a Gator Bowl win over Oklahoma. After taking right tackle Harry Schuh, a future Pro Bowler, in the first round, Oakland took Biletnikoff next. Detroit also drafted him, in the third round, but Fred chose Oakland and never looked back. Davis signed him under the goalposts right after the Gator Bowl.
Always reputed to be obsessed with blinding speed, Davis overlooked Biletnikoff’s 4.7 40 because of other dominant traits. Davis noted that all of his scouts “described him as fantastic. And every one of them questioned his speed. None of the scouts were sure Fred would be an outstanding pro. We felt, with our approach to total pass offense, that speed wasn`t the only consideration, that we could tailor our offense to our players.”
After two years in which he struggled with injuries, Fred emerged in 1967 as a dynamic receiver for newly acquired QB Daryle Lamonica, averaging 21.9 YPC on 40 catches. Despite his lack of stopwatch speed, Biletnikoff never had trouble getting open deep for “The Mad Bomber” or alternates, George Blanda and Ken Stabler. In 14 years, he gathered in 589 passes for 8974 yards and 76 TD’s, and was MVP of the 1977 Super Bowl win over Minnesota. Fred earned election to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1988 and College Hall of Fame in 1991. The award for each year’s best college wide receiver bears his name.
Ken Stabler – 1968
In the Raiders’ great 1968 draft (they garnered Hall of Fame left tackle Art Shell and starters Charlie Smith, Marv Hubbard, and George Atkinson), they began with two curious choices that went against the norms of the time. Despite having a young QB coming off a brilliant year in Lamonica, they took an electrifying, small-school, African-American QB, Eldridge Dickey, in Round 1, and then another QB, left-hander Ken Stabler, in Round 2. NFL teams at the time frowned on both African-Americans and lefties at the marquee position, and drafting QB’s in the first two rounds wasn’t normal even in the weird world of 1960s drafting. Both suffered intense career frustrations–Dickey only played QB in pre-season and was converted to WR, while Stabler served a frustrating five-year apprenticeship in which he quit the team, played in the Continental League, and lived in a hippie commune for two years.
Stabler exhibited several traits as a collegian he later showed as a Raider. A slithery runner before knee injuries slowed him down, he finished second on the team in rushing as a sophomore in 1965, when the Tide won the AP and FWAA national championships. For the 1966 team, which went 11-0 but lost out on a national championship, Snake led the Tide in rushing and passing. As a senior, Stabler was the SEC’s top passer and the all-conference quarterback as Alabama finished 8-2-1. He went 18-2-1 as a starter his last two years. As with Biletnikoff, Davis overlooked his lack of a prototypical trait he loved (a rocket arm) to see the powerful intangibles that made Stabler a great player.
When Stabler did become a starter for good, in 1973, he immediately vaulted into the league’s elite, leading the team to five straight conference championship games (since matched only by Tom Brady) and earning league MVP honors in 1974. Stabler became the face of the franchise– long hair flowing beneath his helmet, the bright grin, the slow saunter to the huddle, and pinpoint passing making him one of the league’s most recognizable players, and his 50-11-1 record as a Raider starter one of its most successful. His amazing 1976 season, in which he threw for 27 TD’s with a 66.7% completion percentage and 9.4 yards per attempt (seventh in NFL history), was capped by the Raiders’ first Super Bowl victory.
Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle said of him: “”He was everything great about the latter half of the 1970s, with none of the crappy stuff from that era. Stabler was like a Burt Reynolds movie, Willie Nelson song and Bounty paper towel ad wrapped into one grizzly, hard-living package.”
Phil Villapiano – 1971
One of the most endearing storytellers from the Raiders’ glory days, Phil Villapiano was one of many small-school players who became big stars in the NFL. He made four straight Pro Bowls (1973-76) for Oakland, providing smothering pass coverage and sure tackling from his left outside linebacker position. Villapiano had tremendous speed for a linebacker in that era, running a 4.6 40, and he learned to shed blocks well playing defensive end at Bowling Green. He finished runner-up in AP Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, and in his second year, he returned an interception for an 82-yard TD against the Rams. He ended up playing in 163 games and collecting 11 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries—a franchise record 17 for Oakland. His analytic intelligence coupled with speed and grit made him a superb pro. Never one to shy away from contact, Villapiano once took on a group of Hell’s Angels in a bar and was beaten badly.
Villapiano was All-Mid-American Conference first team in 1969 and 1970 and was chosen as Bowling Green’s most valuable player in 1970, his senior season. That year, he was also named MAC co-defensive player of the year. Bowling Green elected him to its Hall of Fame in 1976, and the MAC did the same in 1992. He played linebacker for the first time in the Senior Bowl, after which, Villapiano said, “Al Davis shook my hand and told me I played very well.” Al grabbed him with the 45th pick, 11 picks after another great outside linebacker, Jack Ham.
Although the Super Bowl win over Minnesota in 1977 became a blowout, early on the game was close and Villapiano made the critical play. Late in a scoreless first quarter, the Vikings had first-and-goal at the 3-yard line after Fred McNeil had blocked and recovered a Ray Guy punt. On second down from the 2, Villapiano read the play perfectly and forced running back Brent McClanahan to fumble. Raiders’ linebacker Willie Hall recovered. Stabler then drove the offense 97 yards for a field goal—a 10-point swing from which the Vikings never recovered.
Monte Johnson – 1973
Monte Johnson was one of many guys who didn’t seem obviously worthy of high draft status, but Davis saw something in him. Johnson was a key rotational defensive tackle on the great early ‘70s Nebraska teams, which went 32-2-2 and won two National Championships in his three years on the varsity. Succeeding Dan Conners as the starter at middle linebacker, Johnson was a tackling machine who had 10 career interceptions and eight fumble recoveries and collected two Super Bowl rings. Though a quiet man, he was the defensive captain and as fierce a hitter as anyone on the team. He called defensive signals in the Super Bowl victory over Minnesota and got a ring for the victory over the Eagles in 1980, even though he sustained a career-ending knee injury in the regular season.
His defensive coach at Nebraska was Monte Kiffin, now a legendary NFL defensive coach and father of ex-Raider head coach Lane Kiffin. His strength and conditioning coach, Boyd Epley, got Johnson and NFL All-Pro DT John Dutton on a weight program (unusual at the time), and Al Davis actually hired Epley to train Johnson after the Raiders drafted him.
How did Johnson become a Raider? Johnson in an email explained: “Although I never started at Nebraska, during my senior year, I shared playing time with Bill Jansen, one of the team co-captains that year. After the season, I asked [Nebraska head coach] Bob Devaney to try to get me into a post-season game to try and get some additional exposure. He was successful and I received an invitation to play in the All-American Bowl in Tampa, FL. I got in because Bob was the named head coach for the game.
“At a practice before the game, Al Davis and Ron Wolf (who was head of player personnel for the Raiders and future GM for the Packers) were watching a drill, where I was filling in as a ‘warm body’ as a linebacker. After the drill, Mr. Davis said he was going to draft me and believed I could play any one of seven positions for the Raiders.
“The day of the draft, when the Raider draft selection came up for the second round, Mr. Davis wanted to select me. He was the only favorable vote. Since he was the owner and GM, it was the only vote that counted.”
Dave Casper – 1976
A ferocious blocker and a deft receiver with an uncanny ability to track and adjust to the ball in the air, “Ghost” came to Oakland with the 45th overall pick in 1974. Casper figured in two of the most famous plays in Raider lore: the “Ghost to the Post Catch” that set up a win in the 1977 AFC Division Game, and the “Holy Roller” that beat San Diego in the waning seconds of a 1978 game. He caught the first TD of Super Bowl XI and was named All-Pro four straight seasons (1976-79), finishing with 378 career catches for 5216 yards and 52 TDs—a TD/catch average that exceeded any tight end of his era. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2002 and joined the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Casper earned All-America honors at Notre Dame as a tackle in 1972, and in 1973 earned the team’s Offensive MVP award as a tight end. Brian Boulac, an assistant coach who spent 50 years at Notre Dame, considered Casper one of the two best blockers the school ever produced and the most versatile player overall. He actually moved over from tackle to wide receiver one game and played some as a defensive lineman. Notre Dame won the national title his senior year with a thrilling 24-23 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Previewing his later “Ghost to the Post” catch, Casper made a 30-yard, over-the-head grab between two defenders to set up the winning field goal.
Casper’s amazing versatility seemed to confuse teams; the Steelers wanted him as a guard, while New England saw him as a linebacker. Oakland, which viewed him as a tight end all the way, chose him one pick ahead of Pittsburgh in the second round—right before Jack Lambert. He was actually the fifth tight end chosen in a strong class.
“I learned a lot going to the pros working with the Oakland Raiders and Fred Biletnikoff,” Casper said. “I always had a lot of speed and I could always catch so once I got to the pros, I was fortunate enough to be taught some good skill sets and play on a great team.”
Mike Davis – 1977
One of the more underrated Raiders, Davis was the first player chosen by Oakland in its great 1977 draft which netted them Lester Hayes, Mickey Marvin, Jeff Barnes, and Rod Martin. He started 83 games at strong safety for Oakland between 1979 and 1987, plus victories in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. A sure tackler, he also recovered 12 fumbles and grabbed 11 interceptions in his career—none bigger than the diving interception in the end zone in Cleveland to seal the victory in the 1980 AFC Divisional Game, played in -37 wind chill. Notorious for poor hands, Davis jumped Cleveland tight end Ozzie Newsome’s route and caught the ball cleanly in the end zone. He also sacked Joe Theismann in Super Bowl XVIII.
“When I hit my head on the frozen turf,” Davis said of the interception in a 2006 interview, “it might have been the hardest hit in my life. When I stood up, I was a little spacey, but I knew what I had done.” Davis actually lost his hearing because of hits during his football career.
Tom Flores said Davis was “tough as you could be.” If Davis were hurt, “you had to drag him off the field.”
Matt Millen – 1980
Johnson’s successor as the Raiders’ middle linebacker also played defensive tackle in college. He had a brilliant professional career, playing on four Super Bowl winners (two with the Raiders, one each for the 49ers and Redskins). A ferocious run defender who became a two-time All-Pro (1984 and 1985) and named to another Pro Bowl (1988), Millen did the dirty work that allowed the players around him to flourish. Miller provided the critical piece that elevated the Raiders’ fierce Super Bowl-winning defenses. His 1989 49ers team went 17-2, outscored its playoff opponents 126-26, and crushed Denver in the Super Bowl 55-10.
At Penn State, Millen won All-American honors in 1978 in a junior season in which he had nine sacks but missed much of his senior year with a bulging disc in his back. At a time before The Combine, when players were often on their own in making their way to the pros, Millen had to sell himself to NFL teams. “Pro football as an option wasn’t talked about up there,” Millen said in a recent interview with David Jones of Penn State Live. “It wasn’t encouraged. It wasn’t anything.”
According to Millen, as related to Jones, he tricked the Raiders’ team physician, Dr. Donald Fink, who was rather blasé about his duties. During their visit, Fink forgot his office key, so Millen hoisted himself through a window above the door to get in. When he couldn’t touch his toes, Millen cited the effort required to get through the window after a long plane trip. Millen passed the physical and came to the Raiders in Round Two. When Millen first met Davis and Coach Tom Flores, Dr. Fink was there and asked him privately afterward, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a back issue?”
Millen responded: “You never asked.”
Fink replied: “You son of a bitch, you’d better never get hurt.” And Millen never missed a game in 12 pro seasons.
Howie Long – 1981
The second of two second-round picks in 1981, chosen behind talented but injury-plagued guard Curt Marsh, Howie Long became a legendary Raider and NFL Hall of Famer in 2000. In his 13-year career, he went to eight Pro Bowls, collected 84 sacks, and was named 1st team defensive end on the all-1980s team. He was the last of the classic Raiders, a passionate player who once got into a fight with the son of the then-owner of the New England Patriots after a 1985 playoff loss. The charismatic Long has become an excellent NFL analyst and his sons accomplished NFL players, Chris at defensive end for the Rams and Patriots and Kyle at guard for the Bears.
Long exemplified Al Davis’ ability to find brilliant players in odd places. No one from Villanova had been drafted as high as the second round since the Raiders picked wide receiver Mike Siani number one in 1972. Long almost didn’t make it to Villanova; current ESPN analyst and draft guru Mike Mayock recruited him to Boston College, but Long’s grandmother convinced him to expand his horizons and go to Philadelphia and Villanova. Though Long dominated there, he had been suspended for two games his senior season for “an off-campus misunderstanding,” Long admitted. “For the Raiders, I’m not sure if that wasn’t a bit of a bonus.”
Long played for North team coach Jimmy Johnson in the Blue-Gray game and spent three minutes on a workout with Raiders defensive line coach Earl Leggett, one of many tryouts for NFL teams. He didn’t think Oakland wanted him. Long himself said he was “a shock draft pick.”
“I remember ESPN saying they wasted a draft pick,” Long told raiders.com writer Rebecca Corman in 2015. “’They could have gotten this guy in the sixth round. We don’t even have film on him.’”
As he told Bleacher Report in 2011, Long came to the perfect situation, even if he jumped from a very small pond to the NFL elite.
“I’m not sure that I would have been the player that I ended up becoming if I hadn’t gone to the Raiders, for a couple of reasons,” Long said. “One, I think as an organization their patience with young players, that starts with the owner and trickles down to the coaching staff.
“For me to have the kind of defensive line coach that I had with Earl Leggett. We had some great groups upfront with Greg Townsend, Sean Jones, Lyle Alzado, and Bill Pickel. You know we were fortunate enough to have enough talent around us to be what I considered to be a dominant front.”
Bill Pickel – 1983
The son of a New York City policeman, Pickel came to the Raiders from another school not considered a football factory: Rutgers University. During his eight Raider seasons, Pickel registered 53 sacks, fourth best in Raiders history, including consecutive seasons of 12.5, 12.5, and 11.5 from 1984-86. He made the Pro Bowl in 1985 and 1986 and was 1st Team All-Pro in 1985. He played a vital role, getting six sacks, as a rookie on the 1983 Super Bowl winning team. Pickel was a quiet warrior who just went out and played. In 1984, in what might be the most brutal game in modern NFL history, Pickel ended the season of Bears’ QB Jim McMahon with a hit that lacerated McMahon’s kidney. The Bears knocked Raiders QB’s Marc Wilson and David Humm from the game on sacks in a 17-6 win.
As with Millen, Pickel incurred a back injury (a fragmented disk) during his senior college season that caused him to miss half his games, which scared off most people not named Al Davis. He also missed his freshman season with a knee injury, plus half a season as a junior with the back problem. After flunking a physical with the hometown Giants and the Jets refusing even to give him a workout, Pickel sent a letter to the Raiders asking for a tryout after passing Cybex tests for Oakland and Seattle.
“This is a bunch of ‘has-beens’ and misfits,” he said in 1985. “I felt that if anyone would give me a shot, the Raiders would. I’ve since talked to a lot of defensive coaches around the league who’ve told me that they really wanted me. My answer is, ‘Hey, I wasn’t the first guy picked. I was picked at the bottom of the second round. Everyone had a shot.’ ”
At 6’6” and 260, Pickel didn’t have prototypical size of a nose tackle. Like an earlier great Raiders DT, Tom Keating, Pickel often played out of a four-point stance.
The nose guard has people coming at him from all sides at all times,” Earl Leggett, the Raiders’ defensive line coach, said. “He has to be able to read blocking combinations and read them real quick. “He has to have the quickness that will allow him to get off the ball, to get to the center before the center gets to him, and he has to be tough, competitive and tenacious. Bill has all of that.”
His teammate and close friend Howie Long said of him, “”He’s like a vacuum cleaner,” Long said. “Nobody in football pursues the ball better, bar none. I’ve seen him go 20 or 30 yards downfield to make the play. I’ve seen him do things that leave you standing there, wondering about your own commitment.” Pickel is godfather to Howie’s son Chris, now an NFL defensive end.
Sean Jones – 1984
Another small-school player who made good, Sean Jones had prototypical size (6’7”, 270 pounds) for a defensive end. He spent four years in Oakland before being sent to the then-Houston Oilers and finishing with Green Bay. He erupted for a career-high 15.5 sacks in 1986 on his way to a career total of 113, yet made only one Pro Bowl. The Oilers traded the ninth pick in the 1988 draft for him (which Oakland used on excellent CB Terry McDaniel), possibly because of his activities and comments during the 1987 player strike, and he went to play across from Hall of Famer Reggie White in the Packers’ Super Bowl-winning team in 1997.
Sean played offense two years at Northeastern, then defense last two years, at a place where 500 students might show up for games. He was as raw as raw could be, and had a rough transition to the pro game, but he worked very hard studying film of NFL peers and improved quickly. Overlooked by his hometown New England Patriots, the Raiders surprised everyone by taking him in Round 2. Al Davis said of him, “”We think he’s an excellent prospect. It’s up to us and him to get the most out of him. He fits a mold on our team and we feel that we have a great prospect on our hands.”
Coach Flores was more guarded. “I don’t want to put a rap on the coaching staff where he played, but he didn’t know much when he came in here because they didn’t have the drills and the blocking combinations that he needed.”
Howie Long was even more caustic: “Sean was the worst football player I had ever seen when he showed up in camp. He couldn’t even get in a stance.” Yet Long came to cherish Jones as a close friend and named him his son Kyle’s godfather.
Thirteen years later, as Jones prepared to play in Super Bowl XXXI and Long was a television analyst, Long praised him effusively: “”It was like my younger brother just earned a trip to the Super Bowl,” Long says. “He’s one of the closest three people around me in my life, along with Bill Pickel and Chester McGlockton, and I live vicariously though these guys now…[He’s] a brilliant guy. Handles all my money for me. Never seen him lose his cool–off the field. The man has more than 100 sacks and how many guys who have ever played this game have had more than 100 sacks?”
Barret Robbins – 1995
Forever associated with the catastrophe of Super Bowl XXVII, Barret Robbins upheld the Raider tradition of great centers during a career cut short by bipolar disorder and related substance abuse. Only the fifth starting center in Raiders’ history, between 1995 and 2003 Robbins started 105 games. He was named 1st team All-Pro in 2002. After a manic episode took him to Tijuana the day before the Super Bowl game in San Diego, Robbins was unable to play in the Bucs’ 48-21 upset. He came back to play in 2003 but further troubles ended his career.
Despite Robbins’ massive size, he ran a 5.1 40 and could dunk a basketball. Texas Christian was the only team to offer him a scholarship out of high school. The Horned Frogs were never very good while he attended, but Robbins never missed a snap at center, guard, and right tackle. He attracted interest from NFL teams despite an incident of bipolar mania before his senior season. “He fit the mold of what we were looking for — a big, physical, very tough football player,” said former Raiders GM Bruce Allen.
As is often the case with Raider draft choices, the choice came as a surprise to the player himself and many observers. Expecting to go in the later rounds, Robbins was planning to have a barbecue later in the day and was playing video games at home with a friend when the call came. When chosen, he told a reporter, “It is the best day of my life.”
After a year backing up starter Dan Turk, Robbins took over as the starting center in 1996. Despite a series of disturbing incidents related to his medical problems—missing the last two games of his first year as starter, taking off from practice plays and disrupting unit meetings, and having a sit-down at his home with then-coach Jon Gruden right before the AFC Championship Game loss to Baltimore in 2001—Robbins’ on-field play improved steadily. He anchored the team’s record-breaking offenses of the Gruden-Rich Gannon era, providing a powerful run blocker who kept defensive tackles off Gannon.
One of the great “might have beens” in Raider history, Robbins struggled in his post-NFL career, including a terrible confrontation in 2005 with a Miami-Dade policeman in which Robbins was shot three times.
Zach Miller – 2007
A bright spot during the miserable Lane Kiffin-Tom Cable years of 2007-2010, Miller was a fan favorite for his steady play. Drafted right after the infamous Jamarcus Russell, Miller caught Russell’s first NFL touchdown pass. Despite unstable quarterbacking, his speed, hands, and ability to get open made him a reliable and productive receiver. He set the team record for rookies with 44 receptions (since broken by Amari Cooper), led the team in receiving from 2008-10, and his 86-yard TD reception in 2009 ranks as the longest reception by any tight end in Raider history. He compensated for average speed with quickness and great routes, and he was a tenacious blocker. Miller started 61 games for the Raiders and caught 226 passes for 2,712 yards and 12 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010, and then left as a free agent for greener pastures in Seattle (joining his head coach, Tom Cable). He led Seattle in playoff receptions and started on their Super Bowl-winning team in 2014.
Zach was rated the nation’s outstanding tight end coming out of high school and attended his hometown Arizona State University, where he started 35 games. As a freshman, his 56 catches for 552 yards broke the team freshman record set by San Diego Chargers’ great John Jefferson, and he earned Pac-10 Conference Freshman of the Year honors. As a senior, he was a Mackey Award finalist and 1st Team All-American. Miller set the school receiving mark for tight ends with 144, despite leaving for the NFL before his senior season. He was inducted into the Arizona State Hall of Fame in 2016.