There’s no denying that the Oakland Raiders are rebuilding, and by definition that means to reconstruct out of new materials. Those new materials are college prospects, many of which will participate in the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine that kicks off today in Indianapolis.
The Raiders will be looking for players that can help them accelerate the franchise rebuild, because they can’t afford to waste any of their draft picks—including their first, first-round draft pick since the new regime took over last year. Despite a deck stacked against them, a disappointing 2012 campaign has left second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie and second-year head coach Dennis Allen with very little margin for error.
Although Mark Davis isn’t as reactionary as his father, the expectation is that the team will show progress in Year 2. Considering the Raiders still don’t have a full deck of cards when it comes to salary cap space or draft picks, improvement is far from a given. The Raiders will have to use every tool at their disposal to find the right players—one of those tools is the combine.
The combine consists of three major components: interviews, medical examinations and athletic testing. In the past the Raiders were more concerned with the athletic testing than the interviews, with Al Davis routinely selecting the fastest players tested at the combine. Most of the track stars the Raiders selected in the past failed to make an impact on the football field, to the surprise of very few.
McKenzie’s evaluations will be based more heavily on the game tape of the college prospects and that also means the Raiders will focus more heavily on interviews during the combine process. Just because a team focuses on a different thing doesn’t automatically make them successful.
Many highly successful and skilled college players have failed at the NFL level, including many that were consensus top picks. How a player fits with a team often has a lot to do with their success, and the Raiders need to identify those fits.
Medicals also will be an important factor for the Raiders this year, because the team desperately needs an impact player who can contribute immediately. As much as the Raiders would like to have the luxury to pick a player who is undervalued because of a medical issue, they simply don’t have the time to wait.
The Raiders should already have a very good feel for these college prospects, having evaluated most on tape and coached many of them at the Senior Bowl. The combine will either confirm what the Raiders already know, or will force the team to make tweaks based on new information. The less a team has to tweak their draft board, the better job they did throughout the year.
In the case of the Raiders, this will be the first year with a modern NFL scouting department. McKenzie spent a considerable amount of money upgrading the computer systems and totally restructuring the player personnel department last year.
“Changes are going to continue to be made because you can't build Rome overnight,” McKenzie said last year (via Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune). In McKenzie’s case, he’s still trying to build a foundation, but at least his architects are in place and have the proper tools to carry out the task.
Going into an event like the combine with a plan and defined goals is the only way the Raiders can ensure they are successful. The Raiders need to know who to watch, what they are looking for and why they are looking for it. It’s easy to get distracted at an event like the combine and start looking at things that are totally irrelevant to the success of a particular NFL player.
Goal No. 1: Identify Foundational Players
Before the Raiders can build Rome, they need to build a solid foundation. If you are unfamiliar, skyscrapers are built by digging a huge hole so a foundation consisting of concrete and steel can sit on bedrock.
The Raiders have certainly dug the hole, but they still need to find the elements to build their foundation. This is where the interview process at the combine can be a useful tool. The Raiders already know a lot about these players, but there are always a few pretenders.
The Raiders desperately need to add leadership to the team and interviews are one way of trying to trip up a player in a high-stress situation that will challenge them mentally. This also might be the only opportunity the Raiders have to talk to a player one-on-one. Many players have described the combine as a blur because they are tested physically, mentally and physiologically for the better part of four days.
Without leaders, the Raiders are destined for failure no matter the talent level. It’s hard to win in the NFL, and the talent gap separating the worst and best teams is not that significant. Whoever the Raiders draft, they need to make sure they aren’t getting the next Rolando McClain.
The Raiders can use the interview process to test players they have identified as possessing the leadership necessary to be the foundation of their rebuild. It’s particularly important for the Raiders to get this player with their first pick, because the entire rebuild depends on foundational players.
These players are often quarterbacks, middle linebackers and pass-rushers, but they can be found all over the field. A few players the Raiders should press hard in the interview room are Geno Smith, Manti Te’o, Bjoern Werner, Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson.
If the Raiders can come out of the combine with a clear picture of which players are leaders and can put a team on their back in high-pressure situations, then they will have had a successful combine. McKenzie and Allen can try to change the culture in Oakland, but nothing is going to change unless the players help.
Goal No. 2: Identify Supply Chain Problems
If the players are the materials used in building a championship team, then identifying problems with the supply chain is going to be important. Defects in materials could cost a construction project valuable time. The same is true for players with medical red flags, which is why the medical reviews are so important at the combine.
Since the Raiders are just starting their rebuild, they need players who are healthy. It’s impossible to build without the required materials, and waiting for a player to heal is not a luxury the Raiders have right now.
This is the one area where a team can be surprised at the combine, both positively and negatively. Players recovering from torn ACLs who are way ahead of schedule might make the Raiders more comfortable with selecting them. Other players might be slow to heal from their injuries or new problems will be discovered.
The Raiders certainly have a list of players with medical issues that they need to check out, which likely includes players like Jarvis Jones, who has spinal stenosis. Dion Jordan, D.J. Fluker, Kawaan Short, Cornellius “Tank” Carradine and Matt Barkley are probably the players with the biggest medical red flags that should be on McKenzie’s draft board.
Jones and Jordan fill the Raiders’ need for a pass-rusher and could be selected in the first round, so the team should keep an especially close eye on their medical reports.
Is Jones' spinal stenosis a non-issue or simply not an issue right now? What’s the prognosis on Jordan’s injured shoulder and will he be 100 percent by training camp? These are questions the Raiders need answered that could ultimately sway their draft board.
If the Raiders had been able to identify Darren McFadden as a player who heals slowly, they might have made a different choice. By comparison, Adrian Peterson’s injury recovery time is legendary and has been dating back to college. The Raiders need to carefully cross reference medical reports with their scouting profiles, being sure to note potential problems.
Goal No. 3: A Quality Assurance Check
The part we all get to see on NFL Network is the athletic testing portion of the combine. This is probably the least important aspect of the combine, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. If a player’s athleticism is impressive on tape, it should be equally impressive in shorts.
Athletic testing enables scouting departments to do a little bit of quality assurance on their draft board. There shouldn’t be many instances where a scouting department is surprised about a 40-yard-dash time. If the scouting department is surprised by the athletic ability by a particular player, his tape might merit a second look.
Barkevious Mingo, Werner, Damontre Moore, and Jones could all be players the Raiders will keep an eye on in the testing period.
Werner is extremely quick off the line of scrimmage, so it’s reasonable to assume he will display that same quickness at the combine. Moore lacks any explosive elements to his game, so it’s reasonable to assume that he will look average at the combine. Jarvis Jones is also a quick player with good college production, but does he have the agility to be an effective pass-rusher at the NFL level? The agility drills could be important for him.
What's the most important part of the NFL combine?
Mingo is probably going to blow up the combine and be labeled a workout warrior who had disappointing college production in 2012. He’ll be fun to watch and his performance should confirm what can be easily seen by watching his game tape: he’s a freakish athlete.
Mingo is a quick player with great bend and a nasty spin move. As such, Mingo should test well across the board. The combine testing will not help address the concerns with Mingo’s tackling, which is why the event is fundamentally flawed. If Mingo tests worse than expected, that will certainly throw up some red flags considering how he didn’t meet expectations last season.
Although it probably will not shift the draft board, it’s possible that a player might separate himself from other similarly-graded players. Mingo is one example where this could be the case, separating himself from Werner or Jones on some draft boards. The chances of this happening are probably fairly remote, with the interviews having significantly more weight in the decision.
A Piece of the Puzzle
If you have followed the NFL draft long enough, you know that the combine is often called just one piece of the puzzle. More accurately, it should be called one of the final pieces of the puzzle. Those last few pieces of a puzzle are significantly easier to place, because you have a lot more information and there are fewer variables.
In much the same way, the Raiders have already whittled down their draft board using hours and hours of game tape—the puzzle is nearly complete. The only difference is that every piece of the puzzle can still be moved. Ideally, the Raiders did a good enough job constructing the puzzle so that they don’t need to go searching for pieces they forced incorrectly into the wrong spots on their board.
The combine serves as the final blitz of information before the draft board is finalized, with relatively minor tweaks to come over the next two months. The combine should not majorly shift the Raiders' board unless it is a previously undisclosed medical issue.
The Raiders should spend the most of their time trying to separate the players they believe to be leaders from the ones who will actually be leaders in the NFL. The Raiders already know which players can play; it’s just a matter of selecting the one who will have the greatest impact on the team in 2013 and beyond.
A successful combine for the Raiders means identifying the top players with leadership qualities, getting complete medical information and confirming personnel department reports with the tests of athleticism.
Not until about three years after the NFL draft will the Raiders realize if they really had a successful combine, but part of their draft goals will be finding a couple player who will have an immediate impact.