Raiders’ McKenzie with chance to earn his keep

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie arrived at his post in 2012.

And while he’d hit the pinnacle of his professional ladder, it might have been more like playing blackjack without the option to stay. Now his options are much greater, and McKenzie has the chance to prove his value.

His first draft was absent a pick in the first two rounds. Possibly even worse, it was one of the worst classes in history. The clear worst came in his second year.

Despite the long odds, it looks all but certain that McKenzie has built a real-deal contender of a football team. He did it employing a unique strategy, at least in the NFL, by essentially tanking.

This strategy guaranteed two things: a bloated salary cap would become a thing of the past, and high draft picks would come.

Of the first two classes, only one notable came from the ashes. Latavius Murray, a fifth rounder in 2013, has taken a firm hold of the starting running back position.

McKenzie’s first pick of the top 32 hasn’t done much, though. Cornerback D.J. Hayden, the 12th overall selection of 2013, has earned a bad rap.

Failing to live up to his draft status, it’s unlikely the Raiders will pick up his fifth year option. Not that many from his class will see there’s picked up.

The Raiders also added some free agents, though it wasn’t a bright class until the 2015 offseason.

Before then, as Overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald called it in an interview with SFBay some time ago, the Raiders were a defacto expansion team. But without the ability to pluck players off other rosters.

Two very strong drafts in a row, though, coupled with some solid at worst free agent signings, has Oakland on the heels of a legitimate playoff run.

In 2014, the Raiders drafted edge rusher Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr, guard Gabe Jackson defensive tackle Justin Ellis and cornerback T.J. Carrie all appear to be above average to elite players, the first three in particular garnering pro bowl status.

2015 was much of the same, adding a very talented receiver in Amari Cooper, a solid defensive end named Mario Edwards Jr., and arguably the best tight end in the class, Clive Walford.

It’s early to get too high on the 2015 crop, and the Raiders had the unmistakable advantage of drafting in the top five two years running, but that has led them to now.

Selecting at 14th overall in 2016, in a class where little distinction can be made between the 20th best prospect and the 40th best. But It’s also where McKenzie can earn his respect.

He’s clearly earned some, but keeping it totally real, having salary cap space by the Brinks truck, and ideal pick position, is something that can be misleading.

This is a draft where he can prove his acumen.

What’s more intriguing this year is that the Raiders don’t have any glaring needs, something few teams can stake claim to. They don’t need a whole lot of defense, and their offense is stacked.

What they do need, though, is a compliment to Murray in the backfield, and a long-term answer in the defensive secondary.

It sounds easier than it is to make the right choice on projections — which is what scouting boils down to — and most teams don’t do exceedingly well.

McKenzie, though, has shown a knack to hit on day two and three picks, which doesn’t happen often. The Raiders have been a pretty miserable team over his reign, and that only changed during the most recent season.

That was to be expected, to a degree, for the reasons mentioned already. And a foreshadowing effect that his plan had was that picking the best player available is a lot easier when the needs are in abundance.

A simplified way to analyze draft success is to look at whether or not a draft pick is a starter or not. It’s easier to start with limited competition. But the Raiders look pretty good on paper, and finding a starter or two is exactly how McKenzie will be measured.

Regardless of how much better his roster is, McKenzie needs this validation from fans, players, and league officials. He needs their respect because that’s how the ball will roll on in the right direction. To attract free agents in the future without paying top dollar.

To ensure the Raiders aren’t a laughingstock around the league, from spectators to insiders and those in the NFL’s employ.

Most of all, though, McKenzie needs this boost of confidence that he can take a middling draft slot and once again turn it into gold. Because if the Raiders keep improving, a cushy draft position will be absent, and likely for a while.

He needs to know that he has the talent and skill to eyeball those with talent and skill.

Because it takes on to know one. And though it’s been a sweet ride recently, McKenzie hasn’t fully proven himself.

His chance comes in four days.


Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.