There is a ton of buzz surrounding the Oakland Raiders this season. People who have been around the team are taking notice of their roster turnaround orchestrated by Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock.
There are a ton of rookies who are projected to have a quick impact, and the team seems to be miles ahead of where they were last season talent-wise. Sure, the team is also enduring its usual share of criticism due to their new wide receiver Antonio Brown’s off-field antics.
Yet, Oakland is taking it all in stride, knowing they gave up very little to bring in one of the most talented wideouts in the league. Both the Brown acquisition and young talent are a testament to Mayock’s expertise at finding players who are both talented and love the game of football.
Mike Mayock: Balancing the Tangibles and Intangibles
Rookies Expected to Make an Immediate Impact
At first glance, it is no surprise that the Raiders have a good amount of rookies who are expected to immediately see significant time on the field. They had three first-round selections: Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, and Johnathan Abram. All three are already slotted in to start, but they aren’t the only ones who are impressing early.
Hunter Renfrow has been getting a ton of buzz the entire training camp. Even though wide receiver is one of the more competitive position groups, Renfrow is likely to start Week 1 as the team’s slot receiver. He was taken all the way back in the fifth round.
Maxx Crosby has also been getting a ton of praise at the defensive end position. The fourth-round pick broke his hand early in the first preseason game, but he earned the respect of his coaches and players when he got a cast and went back into the game. While he might not be a starter, he will see a good amount of snaps, and will likely take over the job at some point in the season.
Second-round pick Trayvon Mullen is also coming along quicker than expected. He’s had a very quiet camp, with really no news good or bad on his performance. But, looking at Oakland’s depth chart, he’s already listed in the second group of corners and will have the chance to upend Daryl Worley for the position if he continues to develop throughout the year.
Mayock’s Football Philosophy
The most apparent trait about Mayock’s draft picks are the player’s love for the game. He said that “When we’re talking about a ‘Raiders Star’… what we’re looking for is big, fast guys that can run and love the game of football. [Players] that love it, that are professional, they show up every day, they give you a full day of work.” This is exactly what Oakland got. It isn’t just about combine numbers and college stats.
This is what drew Mayock to Ferrell. He had a first-round grade on him, but Mayock is probably the only guy who had him rated higher than other defensive linemen like Josh Allen. Same with Abram, who also wasn’t rated as the top safety in terms of talent. But these are Mayock’s guys because there is no doubt that they love the game of football.
He is looking to mold the team into his image: workers with a chip on their shoulder. They might feel that they aren’t given the respect they deserve. Ferrell is definitely hearing the noise that Oakland reached for him, but the organization is confident that he will use it as motivation to play at his best.
But not everyone understands what Mayock’s vision is yet. To most, a player that “loves the game” puts his head down and works. That is why there seems to be a disconnect with Mayock’s first big move to acquire Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brown is loud and outspoken, and he gets a ton of criticism for it. But one thing that he will never be criticized for is his work ethic. Through his entire career, Brown has built a reputation as being one of the hardest workers in the league. So, maybe Brown is also a Mayock guy.
An Early Disconnect
The 2018 draft class was Gruden’s first season back and he tag-teamed that draft with former GM Reggie McKenzie. While a few players saw a lot of playing time, it was more from lack of depth rather than the players actually performing well. First-round pick Kolton Miller at least has an excuse, as he played injured almost the entire year. However, up until his injury, he showed promise, only giving up one sack in the first four games.
After that, things did not look good. Brandon Parker was also forced into action on the offensive line when veteran Donald Penn went down. He also played poorly, but unlike Miller had no excuse. Touted as being an athletic prospect out of college, he lacked the power necessary to win against bigger NFL players.
Arden Key was another player thrust into the starting lineup. He wasn’t terrible, but only managed one sack on the year. Now with more competition, he’s already lost his starting spot and could fall further on the depth chart. Maurice Hurst was undoubtedly one of the better picks, but Hurst was a first-round talent who fell into Oakland’s lap due to health concerns.
Aside from that, no one in the class saw much playing time. Looking at the draft, there is really a lack of vision. It didn’t seem like Gruden and McKenzie were on the same page, something that was later confirmed when McKenzie was let go after the season ended.
McKenzie’s Contradictory Philosophy
McKenzie often spoke about how he valued the trenches up front – on both the offensive and defensive lines. And that idea worked on the offensive line. McKenzie built one of the biggest and best lines in the league. But aside from that, some of what he said didn’t always add up.
Many of the Raiders draft picks often went to linemen, but most of them didn’t end up working out. When he took the job as GM, he stated that it was time for Oakland to stop going after high-risk, high-reward players. This was the late Al Davis’ calling card. He would often look for explosive players who had a high-ceiling. They usually didn’t work out, which was one reason why the Raiders were the laughingstock of the league for so long.
But McKenzie quietly kept this same train of thought up. Though he moved away from lightning-fast high-risk guys, instead, he turned to big, strong guys with either injury history, or questions about their dedication to the game. McKenzie felt that a good environment would bring out the best in these players. It didn’t.
And Then Looking Further Back
Red flags went up with his first draft back in 2013. D.J. Hayden was about as head-scratching as they come in the first round. He was coming off a major injury, and most teams didn’t even have him as a first-round pick. Menelik Watson and Sio Moore stuck around for a while but were never starting caliber. Latavius Murray was really the only player who did anything in the league.
The 2014 draft class is probably what kept McKenzie around for as long as he was. The first four picks ended up being quality starters on the team. From rounds one through four were Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, and Justin Ellis.
Things only went downhill after that, when McKenzie’s style of going for the high-ceiling, high-risk players started bottoming out. Amari Cooper was the team’s first-round pick that season and ended up doing well. The rest flamed out. Mario Edwards Jr. and Clive Walford never lived up to their potential, with motivation being a prime factor their entire time in Oakland.
While Edwards Jr. and Walford at least saw some production, it became obvious it was time for a chance with the 2016 draft. He took Jihad Ward in the second and Shilique Calhoun in the third. Both were pass rushers with a ton of talent, but just as many questions in terms of their love for the game. Both quickly flamed out without doing much of anything on the team.
2017 was probably the final straw that finally got owner Mark Davis begging to get Gruden back to the team. Though Gareon Conley has been a solid pick, the rest have not. Obi Melifonwu only lasted one season on the team despite being a second-round pick. Eddie Vanderdoes has played what seems like ten snaps for the team in two seasons. The two were both injured basically their entire Raiders tenure, with many questionings just how legitimate the injuries are.
A Perfect Partnership for the Long Term
No one will question Gruden’s passion and dedication to the game. This is why the Gruden/McKenzie partnership was dead on arrival. Gruden came in and quickly cleaned house of the players who couldn’t at least attempt to match his love for football. Most of those guys ended up being McKenzie’s draft picks.
He replaced McKenzie with someone with not only the same fire that he has but someone who is an expert at finding guys with a combination of tangible skill that gets players in the door and the intangibles that keep them in the game for years to come. He’s helped accelerate a full-blown rebuild even while only being with the team less than a calendar year. It will be exciting to watch Mayock work his draft magic with the Silver and Black for years to come.