Oakland Raiders: The Case for Reggie McKenzie keeping his job
May 8, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Khalil Mack (Buffalo) holds up a jersey after being selected as the number five overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to the Oakland Raiders at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
After an unimpressive 2012 draft in which the Raiders did not get a pick until late in the 3rd round, Reggie McKenzie has now led the team through two real drafts, and has made the team better in the draft each year. After finding what looks to be both the franchise quarterback as well as the defensive centerpiece of the future, McKenzie, who has not traded away any high picks for veteran players like his predecessors, looks to have another opportunity in next years’ draft, in which the Raiders are almost assured of a top 5 pick should the team continue to struggle.
The 2012 draft was perhaps the low point of Raider drafts in recent memory. With most of their top picks gone in trades for Carson Palmer and Aaron Curry, Al Davis had used up their 3rd round pick shortly before his death to add quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the 2011 supplemental draft. While compensatory picks were added in order to give McKenzie six picks to work with in the later rounds of the draft. McKenzie, who had only been with the team for a few months, did what he could, adding players like Miles Burris, Tony Bergstrom and Jack Crawford.
In 2013, Reggie finally had some picks: the Raiders had a high first rounder, but were missing their 2nd rounder and 5th rounder. McKenzie traded back from #5 to #12 to add a second-round pick and took Houston cornerback DJ Hayden. Hayden, a supremely talented player, was also extremely risky: a torn aorta had kept him out for the entire 2012 college season. In the second round, McKenzie picked Florida State tackle Menelik Watson, and in the third round he added UCONN linebacker Sio Moore. He rounded out the draft class in the late rounds with Central Florida running back Latavius Murray, Tennessee tight end Mychal Rivera, and San Diego State wide receiver Brice Butler.
Of course the 2014 draft class is much easier to remember. With the fifth overall pick, the Raiders took vaunted Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. After one of the most remarkable displays of patience and confidence in Raider draft history, McKenzie sat back and allowed Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr to fall to him at the top of the second round. Twenty-five picks later, McKenzie drafted Mississippi State offensive guard Gabe Jackson. Later in the draft, McKenzie took some risks on players like LA Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis in the 4th round Ohio cornerback TJ Carrie (a Bay Area native) in the 7th. Observers commented at the time that the Raiders may have had the best draft of the year, and their best draft in recent history.
Those observers look right so far. Despite an 0-6 start, nearly every bright spot on the team is a player drafted by Reggie McKenzie (as are a few not so bright spots). Rookie cornerback TJ Carrie, the 7th round pick, is the team’s leading punt returner and is the highest-rated cornerback on the team according to PFF (34th out of 185 league-wide). Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the most solo tackles on the team, including 7 tackles for loss, and is the 4th-highest rated outside linebacker in the NFL according to PFF, despite not recording a single quarterback sack on the year so far. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was the first 2014 rookie QB to start for his team, starting every game this season. He has thrown for nearly 1,200 yards and 8 TD’s and is completing over 60% of his passes while seeming to develop and improve with each passing week. Third round pick Gabe Jackson has developed into a solid run blocker and a nasty presence in the interior of the Raider offensive line and has started every game at left guard.
Who Dat Dish
McKenzie’s 2013 draft class has been working out well for the Raiders, as well. Linebacker Sio Moore has been one of the bright spots on the Raider defense during his young career, and is has contributed 34 tackles and a sack so far this year to go along with his 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie. Menelik Watson has started two in a row after splitting time with starter Khalif Barnes at right offensive tackle and has developed into a solid performer at the position, especially as a pass blocker. Brice Butler, despite only being on the field for 62 total snaps, has 7 receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown, and in Rod Streater’s absence may see more action in this offense.
McKenzie has had a couple of draft misses. Guard Tony Bergstrom, the Raiders first draft choice in 2012, hasn’t seen the field since 2012 due to a string of injuries. Linebacker Miles Burris, another 2012 draft pick, has been starting at middle linebacker due to a number of injuries and is ranked as the worst linebacker in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com. McKenzie’s first first-round pick D.J. Hayden played poorly last year as a rookie, and has not seen the field in 2014 due to injury but is slated to return in the next two weeks or so. The jury is still out on him. But locating two legitimate starting linebackers, a potential long-term franchise quarterback, a starting right tackle and a starting left guard in two consecutive drafts to go along with some promising role-players is a good record for a general manager.