When Reggie McKenzie was hired in January 2012, the Raiders had a myriad of salary cap issues, a dearth of draft picks and no elite players. Nearly two and half years later, two of those three issues have been alleviated, but the most important remains; the Raiders have no elite players.
Most look at the Raiders barren cupboard of talent as an indictment against McKenzie, which to a degree is foolish. Team building is about trade-offs. Pre-McKenzie, Al Davis traded in continuity, long-term stability and salary cap flexibility year after year in his futile attempts to win now. He signed mediocre talent to mega-deals and continually swung and missed on high draft picks. His failure had significant long-term ramifications and everybody knew it. When he passed away, Hue Jackson ascended to power and traded 843 draft picks for Carson Palmer, who came fully equipped with pick-sixes aplenty and yet another terrible contract.
The pre-McKenzie Raiders were kind of like hoarders. Their house was a mess of colossal proportions and under Davis they never did anything about it. They needed a sensible person to come in and clean out the giant piles of garbage and rat feces, which is exactly what McKenzie’s done. He has purged the Raiders of bad contracts and has set them up to have cap flexibility and draft picks moving forward. And when he was hired, everybody agreed that was what he needed to do.
The third and final step of the rebuild is to add talent. Coming into this offseason, expectations were high, but unrealistic. The Raiders had a ton of cap space, but very little capital in free agency. Again, there are trade-offs. It’s nearly impossible to bring in blue-chip free agents after two seasons of losing and purging salaries. It doesn’t help that the Coliseum is the worst venue in the league. But for all the obstacles he’s had to overcome, McKenzie certainly isn’t devoid of criticism.
He hit rough waters at the onset of free agency. The Raiders lost Jared Veldheer and LaMarr Houston, two fan favorites who ended up with Arizona and Chicago, respectively, on reasonable contracts. For a team that needs talent, it was tough to see them let two of their best players walk. They overpaid for Roger Saffold, a move that was almost universally scoffed at, before losing him too after he failed a physical. McKenzie wasn’t able to reel in any of the biggest fish, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Raiders had interest in Darrelle Revis, but he shockingly (not shockingly) didn’t want to play in Oakland. They also had interest in DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington.
Free agency isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon and McKenzie overcame a turbulent start to add some nice talent with Oakland’s abundance of cap space. He added solid veterans the defense in LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith to bolster the pass rush, as well as cornerbacks Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown to man the secondary. On offense, they made one of the better signings of the off-season in prying receiver James Jones away from the Packers. Throw in a few competent offensive linemen – Austin Howard, Donald Penn, Kevin Boothe – and two cheap, low-risk running backs in Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, who have potential to yield high reward. McKenzie also dealt a sixth round pick to Houston for embattled quarterback Matt Schaub.
McKenzie was patient and didn’t hand out any egregious contracts. This is what smart teams do. They build through the draft and pick their spots in free agency. Fans wanted the Raiders to be like the Redskins or Dolphins and throw giant contracts at the biggest free agents, but McKenzie was never in position to do that. He shouldn’t have anyways.
Now, it’s time to build through the draft. Last season, McKenzie’s top picks failed to live up to expectations, though they were seen initially as long-term investments anyways. Rarely are rookie defensive backs good (see Kareem Jackson), and DJ Hayden was no exception. The book on Menelik Watson was that he was a raw talent that needed to be molded. Both players battled injuries and failed to make positive impacts. McKenzie also stuck out badly on fourth rounder Tyler Wilson.
But the 2013 draft was by no means a failure. McKenzie’s reputation as a great evaluator of talent became apparent in some of the Raiders’ latter picks. He grabbed linebacker Sio Moore in the third round and found a pair of solid sixth rounders in Mychal Rivera and Stacy McGee. Undrafted free agent quarterback Matt McGloin came in and showed some modest promise as a long-term backup.
The Raiders have accumulated a decent mix of veterans and young guys with upside, but it’s not nearly enough. They need elite players. They’ve got to get them through this draft.
The nice thing about this year’s crop is that there’s a lot of talent at the top of the board. When the Raiders pick fifth, there will be impact players available. Last year’s draft was problematic in that it was seen as being deep, but there weren’t many guys worth taking at the third pick. McKenzie traded down – to get Hayden at 12 – and may do so again tonight.
Yesterday, Vox had a good piece (maybe there is hope for the Raiders!) about how teams should trade down more and trade up less. It’s a philosophy I’ve been committed to for a while now. Evaluators put a ton of effort into scouting hundreds of players every year, but in the end it’s mostly a crapshoot. Teams are essentially making educated guesses with their picks. Why not give yourself as many chances as possible to get good players? Even the best coaches and talent evaluators miss on guys – Bill Walsh called Rick Mirer the “next Joe Montana.” Not only does stockpiling picks give teams more chances at hitting on an impact player, but also gives them added trade collateral.
It looks like the Raiders may have options to move down from number five, if they so choose. Maybe Johnny Manziel falls past the Browns and a team gets greedy. Sammy Watkins is seen as the best receiver in a really deep receiver draft. If he’s there at five, maybe the 49ers move some of their 956 draft picks to get him. If I’m McKenzie, the 49ers are a team I’d want to be talking to. They have a lot of picks and the Raiders have a lot of spots to fill.
The biggest question mark on the roster is obviously at quarterback. It’s increasingly harder to compete in todays pass happy NFL if you don’t have a franchise guy at that spot. The Raiders don’t, and need one. Schaub is a stopgap guy at best, and even those guys aren’t guaranteed to even be mediocre. Matt Flynn was atrocious last season. This draft boasts some really intriguing quarterbacks, but no sure-fire franchise guys. I like Teddy Bridgewater best of the group, but he has small ankles and had a mediocre pro-day and has thus taken a tumble down draft boards. Blake Bortles has lot of talent, but is seen as more of a long-term project. McKenzie might not have time to wait on him.
The Raiders, along with half the league, reportedly love Derek Carr. They just don’t love him at the fifth pick. Maybe they look at the Jets at 18 as a potential trade partner. Moving up for a receiver in this draft isn’t a great idea, but teams seem open to it. It makes a lot of sense for the Raiders to draft Watkins, or Mike Evans, and then move him to another team.
And while trading down seems like the smart thing to do, it isn’t the only way to work the draft. We’ve seen teams like the Falcons and Redskins make huge moves to trade up and grab impact players. It’s a higher-risk, higher-reward strategy. The Raiders likely won’t move up from five, but it’s possible they end up trading back into the first round.
It’s all about value. McKenzie might pull the trigger on a deal that would allow the Raiders to move up from 36 into the late first round. Most would give McKenzie a standing ovation if he somehow came out of the first round with Watkins and Carr without giving up the kitchen sink to do it. Conversely, if he gets desperate to grab Carr and ends up overpaying, he’d be making the same type of mistakes that put the Raiders in this situation to begin with. Judging by his history though, McKenzie doesn’t seem likely to do that.
It’s hard to see him coming out of a third straight draft without an impact star; he needs to grab at least one. McKenzie is out of excuses and seemingly out of time. Another 4-12 season won’t be acceptable and would almost certainly result in him looking for other employment. Whatever he decides to do in the draft, it’ll be his way. I still believe in the Reggie McKenzie way. Unfortunately for him, I seem to be in the minority.
Follow Taylor on Twitter @tarmosino