These aren’t your daddy’s Oakland Raiders or even your younger self’s Raiders. If anything, these are your newborn’s Raiders or your puppy’s Raiders. These are the Raiders we’ve never seen before.
Indicative of the freshness of the franchise was their 2016 NFL Draft. No longer slave to a high draft pick and desperate needs, the theme of the draft for the Raiders was upside.
It’s as if general manager Reggie McKenzie got so used to hitting his draft picks out of the park that he started swinging for the fences. We’ll have to wait a couple of years before we know if he struck out or if he’ll continue his Ruthian ways.
First, McKenzie boldly went with a safety at No. 14 overall. Kyle Joseph is coming off a torn ACL and fills a major need, but safety isn’t a premium position. Only a handful of safeties have been drafted in the first 14 picks in the last 15 years and include names like Earl Thomas and Eric Berry.
Joseph needs to be a star safety for the pick to be a success. He needs to help the Raiders slow down tight end Travis Kelce and the slew of other top receiving tight ends in the league. Joseph must be a dynamic playmaker like he was in college at West Virginia.
Unlike Joseph, the Raiders are counting on their second-round pick to produce more in the NFL than he did in college. Defensive end Jihad Ward is relatively new to football having outgrown safety and wide receiver before finding a home on the defensive line.
Ward possesses the size and athleticism to be a plus NFL player, but he’s still learning. He needs coaching to fulfill his potential. In the most basic terms, he has a ton of upside. He’s a pick for the future that could easily be a giant swing and a miss with the 44th overall pick or a home run.
The Raiders tripled down on upside in the third round with Michigan State edge rusher Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun didn’t put it all together in college, but he has the bend and short area quickness to be a great pass-rusher in time.
While it’s true that every prospect needs to develop in the pros and to some extent all of them have upside, the Raiders didn’t settle for average athletes as they have in the past. They didn’t settle for known commodities in exchange for more predictable results.
The Raiders drafted a quarterback. A quarterback in the fourth round! Plus, they traded up to get him. The head-scratching pick was grounded in two basic principles. One, let the board determine how you draft. Two, always draft a quarterback because they have the most value of any position in football.
Value equals upside when it comes to Connor Cook because he checks just about all the physical boxes. If he develops, that’s a good problem to have. If he develops just into a backup, well, that’s still good value.
The Raiders started filling needs in the fifth round–or so it seemed from the fact they selected a running back. Deandre Washington is a 5’9″ jitterbug to complement Latavius Murray, but you never really know when a jitterbug is going to be a jitterbust or a jitterboom. The Raiders didn’t necessary draft him to be more than a complementary player, but he certainly has potential to be more.
In the sixth round, the Raiders selected outside linebacker Cory James. While it might seem like a pick for need, James needs a ton of development before he sees the field. However, he possesses a ton of raw ability and flew under the radar because he played at Colorado State and is undersized at just 6’0″ and 229 pounds.
He needs to develop both his game and his body, but he makes enough plays to be something special if he does. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and head coach Jack Del Rio are both former linebackers that have turned little-known linebackers into productive starters in the past.
The seventh round brought mammoth offensive lineman Vadal Alexander to the Raiders. The 6’5″ player tips the scales at 326 pounds. Yet another physical specimen that needs to refine his game to stick in the NFL, but if he does could become something really special.
Upside. Upside. Upside.
It’s also become clear in the last two years just how much Del Rio and his coaching staff influence the draft. It’s also clear that the scouting staff has the confidence to draft athletes and let the coaching staff turn mere lumps of athletic carbon into football diamonds.
Time will tell which draft picks pan out, but the times have changed in Oakland. The Raiders are now drafting players for what they could be in a couple years and not what the franchise needs them to be today. The Raiders are swinging for the fences instead of trying to string together a few singles.
It’s the clearest sign yet the team has enough hitters that they no longer need every draft pick to play immediately. We may not have seen the 2016 Raiders on the field, but for the first time in a long time, it seems like the front office feels pretty good about the roster.