Oakland has plundered recent drafts, which has led them to early success in 2016.
The Raiders are getting to be somewhat predictable. Every week, just tune into the silver and black as the fourth quarter begins and wait for the magic to happen. This past week’s 34-31 nail-biter over San Diego was no exception and marks the fifth straight one-possesion game that Oakland has played to start the season.
Jack Del Rio’s club is standing tall at 4-1 for the first time since 2002 and clearly has more talent than in recent seasons. Much of that talent is under the age of 26 and has come in the last few drafts. Contrary to common wisdom, their youth seems to have served them well when the game winds down.
Since 2014, the Raiders have been one of the best drafting teams in the NFL, having hit on stars, role players, lineman, and skill players alike. Magnifying each class gives a better idea of whether their wins are sustainable or a mirage.
Can this team continue to win these close calls, or will their lack of experience catch up to them?
2014 Draft Class
|1st round-LB Khalil Mack|
2nd round-QB Derek Carr
3rd round-G Gabe Jackson
4th round-DT Justin Ellis
4th round-CB Keith McGill
7th round-CB Travis Carrie
7th round-DE Shelby Harris
7th round-S Jonathan Dowling
The 2014 draft class laid the foundation for the culture change that has permeated Mark Davis’ Raiders. GM Reggie McKenzie held the number five overall pick in a stacked class, flush with star players. Hitting on one of them was imperative, and he scooped up possibly the biggest fish in the pond, Khalil Mack.
Mack has turned out to be one of the best players at his position, racking up 20 sacks in 37 career games. In only his second season, he made NFL history, becoming the first player to be named to an all-NFL team at two different positions. His versatility has allowed him to play DE and OLB, giving the Raiders the capability to mold their defensive concepts around their star player. Mack has the kind of impact that Von Miller brings to the Broncos. He is a truly elite player who demands a special game plan and his play makes his teammates better. Just coming away from that class with him would have been more than enough, but McKenzie wasn’t done yet.
Derek Carr left Fresno State to mixed reviews from many scouts. He certainly had arm talent, athleticism and polish, but his older brother David left a bad taste in the mouths of many NFL executives.
The younger Carr has already proven more than his sibling after falling only thirteen yards short of 4,000 last season (along with 32 TDs). His growth is tangible, as has improved his yards per attempt, TD to INT ratio, and completion percentage each year in the league. Improvements to the offensive line and skill position players have helped the burgeoning QB grow with his team.
Finding a star pass-rusher/defender and QB alone would be a great start for changing the fortunes of down-trodden franchise, but McKenzie was far from finished that weekend.
He plucked future starting guard Gabe Jackson in the third round, who, along with Carr, was named to Pro Football Focus’ top ten breakout players from 2015. The mammoth OL has started each game since he was drafted and has been among the best pass protectors in the league. His improvements in the running game helped pave the way for the first 1,000 yard rusher in Oakland since 2010.
If that wasn’t enough, 4th rounder Justin Ellis has developed into a decent starter and 7th round selection Travis Carrie has been solid as a nickel back and special teams contributor. Getting four or five players from a draft class to make a roster, let alone start, is exceptional. When two or three are Pro Bowl caliber, that’s a grand slam.
2015 Draft Class
|1st round- WR Amari Cooper|
2nd round- DE Mario Edwards Jr
3rd round- TE Clive Walford
4th round- G Jon Feliciano
5th round- LB Ben Heeney
5th round- LB Neuron Ball
6th round- DE Max Valles
7th round- OT Anthony Morris
7th round- WR Andre Debose
7th round- CB Dexter McDonald
Amari Cooper had done things that no other player had done in Alabama’s illustrious history. He put together two 1,000 yard, 10+ TD seasons and even set the SEC single season receptions record with 124 during his junior campaign. Along with Kevin White of WVU, he was seen as a game-breaking pass catcher. Given his choice of the two, McKenzie went with the more proven Cooper and hasn’t looked back since. White has spent most of his time on IR, while Cooper went over 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is on pace to top the 1,000 milestone again this year, and has paired with red zone threat Michael Crabtree to make up one of the league’s better pass catching duos.
Second round selection Mario Edwards Jr. was one of the most highly touted players coming out of high school, with some publications rating him the number one player. Although he didn’t quite live up to the hype in college, he started to make good on some of that potential during a solid rookie season. He started ten games, making 33 tackles and two sacks. A hip injury has delayed his start to this season, but he should make an impact when he is set to return later this year.
Clive Walford showed he belonged last season when he out played starter Mychel Rivera according to Football Outsiders. In fact, the former Miami Hurricane was better than Kyle Rudolph, Vernon Davis and Martellus Bennett, by that metric. Walford is currently getting four targets a game and appears to be a solid contributing player.
Three more starters from that class brings the total to seven between 2014 and 2015. McKenzie had built up some serious momentum heading into the 2016 draft.
2016 Draft Class
|1st round-S Karl Joseph |
2nd round-DE Jihad Ward
3rd round-DE Shalique Calhoun
4th round-QB Conor Cook
5th round-RB DeAndre Washington
6th round-OLB Cory James
7th round-OT Vadal Alexander
Typically it takes longer than five games for a draft class makes its impact felt, but Oakland’s 2016 bunch of rookies have already made their presence known around league.
Week 5 was Karl Joseph’s coming out party. He had a pick and fumble recovery in a game where they needed both of those plays to win. Considering he missed the first two weeks of the season due to recovery from off-season knee surgery, Joseph has jumped ahead of the learning curve. I was bullish on the safety’s potential coming out of West Virginia, so I can’t say this immediate impact is surprising. If Joseph continues to acclimate himself, a DROY could be on his mantle later this year.
Jihad Ward and Shalique Calhoun have been tied together much of this season. They have both provided pass-rush skills in lieu of Mario Edwards and flashed the potential which had them selected on the second day of the draft. Both need to work on run defense, but with long athletic bodies that should carry more weight in the coming years, they should improve in that respect. Having Bruce Irvin around as a mentor is a great design, and with Edwards set to return later this year, expect Ward and Calhoun to remain in the rotation.
A year after Latavius Murray rushed for 1,000 yards, it seems that his job is under siege from talented rookie ball carriers. Fifth round pick DeAndre Washington has been a big play threat when given the opportunity. He leads the team with three 20+ runs this year and also provides a threat out of the backfield in the passing game. Pairing him with undrafted free agent Jalen Richard has given the Raiders a potent running back rotation behind Murray. Both Washington and Richard average more yards per carry than Murray, so expect them to see more playing time as the season progresses.
Seventh round picks are usually fighting to make the team, but Vadal Alexander found himself in the starting lineup in Week 4. In his second career start, Alexander graded highest of any offensive lineman in the game, showing the kind of power that made him a long-time starter at LSU. Rumblings are already being heard that Alexander could displace Menalik Watson in the starting lineup for good.
That is five players out of seven who have already justified their selection. Only time will tell, but this class has the potential to be the best out of the three mentioned.
This is not the same Raiders team that has been devoid of talent since they made the Super Bowl with Rich Gannon at the helm.
Out of the last three draft classes, the Raiders have brought in a dynamic QB-WR duo, two rotation RBs, a starting TE and two starting lineman on offense. Defensively, they have an All-Pro LB/pass rusher, a potential Pro Bowl safety, four rotational d-lineman and a nickel CB. That makes a whopping fourteen players who have made an impact this year!
Oakland has made a living this season by keeping games close and pulling them out in the fourth quarter. Perhaps its beginner’s luck. Maybe it’s youthful optimism. The best explanation is this team is just better.
Edited by John Ray.
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