Al Davis set many precedents while being the innovative owner of the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. From slogans like “Commitment to Excellence,” to “Just Win, Baby,” the legendary Davis created a legacy with his quotes, his ethics, and his leadership. However, with every trailblazer comes eccentric quirks and odd decisions.
With his own ideologies, Davis also cemented the Raiders as a wild-card in the first round of the annual NFL Draft. From drafting the fastest available to drafting punters and kickers first, Davis was not afraid to take the man he liked most. Below is a list of players who helped concrete the idea that the Raiders, no matter where they are located, remain the NFL Draft’s wild-card.
Ray Guy, Punter (23rd overall, 1973)
In hindsight, the Ray Guy selection was nothing but Al Davis nailing his pick. One of many pioneering moments for the NFL, Guy was the first punter selected in round one of an NFL draft. Now a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame, and in Canton as well, Guy broke the mold for the position. His entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame would be the first for a punter.
Paired with the speed Davis would draft in the 1970s, Guy would put hangtime on balls so much that returners couldn’t field punts before gunners were already in their faces. Guy was not known for booting 70 yarders, rather he would help coin the term “Coffin Corner.” This referenced pinning teams inside the ten-yard line, so that the defense had the whole field to make a stop. It’s generally thought that hangtime began being measured specifically because of Guy and his efforts.
While punters usually don’t get credit for much, Guy demanded respect for the position. His name now graces the award for the best punter in college football every year, the Ray Guy award. His 207 consecutive games, 111 postseason punts, and three seasons leading the NFL in punt yardage have made his name synonymous with the greatest punter of all time. Not too shabby for a first-round selection that the NFL surely scoffed at in 1973. While this may have been the first time the Raiders showed their wild-card status in the draft, it certainly turned out for the best.
Darrell Russell, Defensive Tackle (2nd overall, 1997)
Not every risk Davis took in the draft would pan out. In fact, a lot of the questions surrounding many of these selections would end up ringing more true than not. Darrell Russell, unfortunately, falls into this category. Though a good defensive prospect, Russell was slated mid-first round. After Davis and the Raiders saw him post a 4.8 40-yard dash time at the combine, they were enamored. That speed with a six-foot-five, 320-pound frame was destined to produce in Davis’s mind.
Russell would sign a seven-year, $22 million contract in 1997, the largest for a rookie at the time. Posting ten sacks in 1998 and nine and a half in 1999, Russell looked to be on the rise to NFL stardom. Sadly, his off-field issues would get in the way of further success. Multiple failed drug tests would see Russell bounce around the league, miss time due to suspension, and eventually knock him out of the NFL in 2004.
Defensive tackles usually fall out of the top ten in drafts, unless they are generational talents. Davis took a huge risk at second overall on Russell, and while he produced a little, it was never up to the standard that was expected. Living and dying by the prospect you like most always has bust potential. The fearless Davis would fall victim to this more than once during his tenure as owner.
Sebastian Janikowski, Kicker (17th overall, 2000)
A fan favorite of the Raiders since being drafted, Sebastian Janikowski may be the most standout wild-card selection on this list. A kicker going in round one, especially heading into the modern NFL was a recipe for being the laughing stock of the draft. However, once again, Davis listened to his gut, and the special teams’ selection slowly but surely became a wise decision. Janikowski would go on to become the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer with 1,799 points. He would also play the most games for the Raiders, appearing in 268.
While his rookie season was shaky, Janikowski would right the ship quickly and permanently. In 2002, he would help the Raiders reach the Super Bowl. They ultimately fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a controversial game, 48-21. In 2004, Janikowski signed a $10.5 million deal, the highest for a kicker at the time. This was another instance of Davis putting his investments in a player he hand-picked before anyone else would’ve.
2011 proved to be Janikowski’s best season. He tied the NFL record for the longest field goal at 63 yards against the rival Denver Broncos. His efforts on the season earned him Pro Bowl honors as well. 2013 saw him sign another large contract, furthering his legend in Raider lore. Janikowski would stay with the team until 2018, where he would join the Seattle Seahawks thereafter. He retired in 2019.
Yes, the Raiders took a kicker in the first round
Kickers are almost never coveted prospects or free agents. This was not the case in Davis’s mind during the draft in 2000. Experts still call it a reach, but is it ever too early to select your franchise’s leading scorer? The crystal ball in the Raiders front office knew something scouts didn’t that day. After 17 years in the Silver and Black, mentions of Janikowski still bring a smile to Raider fans across the nation.
Robert Gallery, Offensive Tackle (2nd Overall, 2004)
There are many selections that every franchise would like to re-do once the history has been written. It could be argued that selecting Robert Gallery second overall would be Raiders’ choice of a do-over. In his time with the Raiders, Gallery was just an average lineman. The reasoning for Gallery here isn’t so much the reach or his lackluster play, rather it’s the player chosen after him; Larry Fitzgerald.
Tackle was a need for the Raiders heading into the 2004 draft. Gallery was a highly touted prospect out of Iowa but seemed to be high-risk, high-reward. He started his rookie season and only allowed three sacks. In his next season, he allowed ten sacks and eventually, would be moved to guard in 2007. This shift would help his production, but Gallery would already hear the term bust mentioned with his name. After six mediocre seasons as a Raider, Gallery would go on to Seattle and New England, eventually retiring in 2012.
The selection after Gallery only makes his bust label more apt. Larry Fitzgerald has been an elite NFL receiver since being drafted in 2004. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Fitzgerald could’ve helped an offense that struggled to find any success from 2004-2010. Davis must have seen other Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice on the roster and was content. Alas, a trio of Fitzgerald, Brown, and Rice could’ve seen way better results. Who knows, maybe Brown wouldn’t have been released given Fitzgerald’s addition. Fans will never know what could’ve been had the Raiders chosen best available, rather than continue their wild-card streak in the draft.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Wide Receiver (7th overall, 2009)
Coming after Davis’ passing, the selection of Darrius Heyward-Bey was almost as if Davis made the pick from the grave. It’s no secret that Davis loved speed at any position. The Maryland product posted a 4.3 40-yard dash time, and the Raiders fell in love. Heyward-Bey was selected seventh overall, going before other projected receivers Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. With average production and intangibles, it seemed Heyward-Bey’s speed was the sole reason for his high selection.
Nagging injuries would plague Heyward-Bey’s rookie season. His nine receptions for 124 yards and one touchdown looked more like a single game effort rather than the nine games he played in. Through 2013, the Raiders receiver would prove to be just an average player for the team. Never eclipsing 1,000 yards, Heyward-Bey never reached the potential the Raiders saw in him. Lacking in every area but quickness, his career would see a small resurgence in Indianapolis before he’d retire in 2018.
Adding to the Raiders wild-card draft history, Heyward-Bey was questioned as soon as he was selected over other receivers. Speed may kill in the NFL but other skills are necessary to succeed as well. The Raiders took their man in again in 2009, leading to more confusion for the team in the 21st century.
Alex Leatherwood, Offensive Tackle (17th overall, 2021)
It is surely too early to grade the selection of Alex Leatherwood, however, that didn’t stop experts from saying his selection was already a reach. Following the ideology of Davis, Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have been taking their guy no matter where they pick. Scouts sneered at Clelin Ferrell in 2019, and Damon Arnette in 2020, but Leatherwood seems to have taken the most criticism before even taking a snap in the NFL. The Alabama prospect looks poised to prove critics wrong.
A deep 2021 draft class at the tackle position is at fault for Leatherwood being considered a reach. Leatherwood going before players like Teven Jenkins and Christian Darrisaw saw GMs raise their eyebrows. Gruden and Mayock claimed he was their choice all along, so they were glad he “fell” to 17th. While this choice may prove faulty, a re-hauled offensive line could see Leatherwood’s breakout as a right tackle. After 2021, this pick will be less difficult to grade.
Offensive linemen are important, but it takes good ones to go in round one. Many tackles went in the first round of the 2021 NFL, but Leatherwood has the most uncertain selection on paper. Sticking to their guns, the Raiders yet again, prove their wild-card status in the draft. Here’s to hoping Leatherwood’s career is more like Guy’s and Janikowski’s, and not Gallery or Heyward-Bey.
Ramble’s Closing Take
The Raiders’ history spans many decades and is full of highs and lows. Many of the traditions and patterns of the Raiders can be attributed to Davis. Heading into every draft, the buzz is aplenty and someone can almost always be heard saying “Let’s see what crazy trick the Raiders have for us this year.” The Raider way is a fearless one, highlighted by a dedication to adhering to traditions and convictions. Yet, it’s almost like flipping a coin as well. One thing’s for certain, no matter who’s in charge, the Raiders are certain to provide the wild-card move somewhere in the NFL Draft.
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*Top Photo: Robert Klein/Associated Press