One of the myriad factors a National Football League team's general manager is judged by is his success stocking the roster through the NFL Draft. Oakland Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie is getting ready to guide the Silver and Black through his fifth Draft.
Not every general manager is going to hit on every draft pick, but the trick is to get more right than wrong and to know when a mistake has been made and move on. The Raiders' last two draft hauls have arguably been two of the best in the NFL, as the team has acquired a history-making All-Pro defender, a franchise quarterback and a game-breaking wide receiver. The Raiders have also added a Pro Bowl running back, a star in the making at left guard, starters along the defensive line, versatile playmaking linebackers, a pair of talented tight ends, and quality depth in the Draft during McKenzie's time at the helm.
"He was heavily criticized at the outset when he had to rid the club of people that were no longer performing up to the level of their payment, he had to get cap room created, he's done a really good job at that, he's done a really good job drafting," Hall of Fame NFL executive and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said. "I think he made the right choice in Jack [Del Rio], there's still a ways to go, but they've got on offense the three things that you need, they've got the great receiver, a brilliant young quarterback, and they've got the running back. I think they're headed in the right direction."
It wasn't until this season, however, that McKenzie's first selection paid dividends. Tony Bergstrom was selected out of Utah in the 3rd round of the 2012 Draft to play guard and he was better suited to a Zone Blocking System. When the Raiders switched to a power-gap scheme, Bergstrom's days in Oakland appeared numbered. In 2015, he reinvented himself, earned the back-up center job, and performed admirably when starter Rodney Hudson was injured.
After drafting for need the past four seasons, the Raiders are finally in a position to almost strictly look at the best player available as the 2016 Draft unfolds. Two years ago, by the time we did our final mock draft tracker, the experts pretty much settled on Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins or University of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack for the Raiders at No. 5 overall. The Buffalo Bills traded up to No. 4 to get Watkins and the Raiders happily selected Mack. Last year, the experts had the Raiders taking a wide receiver from the get-go. The only question was whether it would be Alabama's Amari Cooper or West Virginia's Kevin White. The Raiders took Cooper and White didn't play a down for Chicago due to injury.
Taking a look at the latest mock drafts, there isn't much consensus among the experts. Most agree that the Raiders have needs in the defensive secondary, especially in light of Charles Woodson's retirement and Nate Allen's release earlier this week. However, picking at No. 14 overall, the Raiders could go any number of ways.
From offensive tackle to defensive tackle, from linebacker to defensive back, the experts have yet to form a consensus with regard to the Raiders and their projected first selection in this year's draft.
Mel Kiper, Jr., concedes the Raiders need help in the secondary but feels like there are plenty of players available in the later rounds and projects the raiders to take Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin. Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com believe that adding Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche would add an explosive playmaker to a burgeoning front seven. According to Brooks, the 2016 NFL Draft is deepest at defensive tackle. In light of defensive end Justin Tuck's retirement, the health status of Mario Edwards Jr. and whether or not suspended linebacker Aldon Smith is re-signed, there's no reason to think that the Raiders wouldn't add an interior defender at some point in the draft.
McKenzie hasn't hit on all of his draft picks. Linebacker Sio Moore was traded to Indianapolis and wide receiver Brice Butler was traded to Dallas after uneven tenures in Oakland. Cornerback DJ Hayden has been inconsistent at best. Ultimately, free agency will have a lot to say about which direction the Raiders go in the Draft.
One thing is for certain, McKenzie will continue to do what he thinks is right for the team from a personnel and financial standpoint. And according to Polian, it takes time to build a consistent winner.
"I don't think you can criticize anything Reggie has done," Polian said. "Fans don't realize that when you make a move and you're building a franchise, it takes time. Everybody wants instant success and it doesn't happen that way. It takes time. He's done all the right things."
McKenzie and the Raiders have selected four Pro Bowlers in the last three Drafts and the selections in the past four had a lot to do with the Raiders improving from 3-13 in 2014 to 7-9 in 2015. These moves, the coaching staff that was assembled last year and kept intact, and the continued development of key players have the Raiders on the brink of competing for more than just respectability.