Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has done a good job rebuilding this offseason. After a rocky start that included voiding the contract of their most high-profile signing due to a failed physical, the Raiders managed to upgrade their offensive line and sign seven defensive starters.
What McKenzie has failed to do is bring in a core young playmaker on either side of the ball. The youngest unrestricted free agent the Raiders signed this offseason was 27-year-old offensive lineman Austin Howard.
The Philadelphia Eagles tossed the Raiders a lifeline by releasing wide receiver DeSean Jackson. It’s not very often a player like Jackson becomes available. It’s even rarer for such a player to be available at this stage of the offseason, so the Raiders had a unique opportunity.
With Jackson now off the market, the Raiders still have a desperate need for a young playmaker with no quick way of satisfying it. With owner Mark Davis growing impatient, a lifeline like Jackson could have kept McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen from drowning in the sea of 8-8 expectations.
McKenzie will have to turn to the draft to find a playmaker at wide receiver. It’s a special draft class of receivers, but rarely is a rookie an immediate star at the position, which is what the Raiders need.
Only six receivers in the history of the league have compiled 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns their rookie year—none since Randy Moss in 1998. Even 1,000-yard seasons are rare for rookie wide receivers, with only 16 in the history of the league accomplishing the feat.
|DeSean Jackson vs. Rookie Wide Receivers|
|DeSean Jackson (16-game Avg.)||65||1,125||6||17.2||<-|
|Rookies in History at Level||19||7||95||243 (min 12 games)||3|
|DeSean Jackson (Career Avg.)||59||1,020||5||17.2||<-|
|Rookies in History at Level||29||13||137||243 (min 12 games)||3|
|DeSean Jackson (Rookie)||62||912||2||14.7||<-|
|Rookies in History at Level||24||28||531||141 (Full Season)||13|
Calvin Johnson didn’t even have 1,000 yards his rookie year.
The good news is that two receivers have done it in the past three years—Keenan Allen and A.J. Green. Julio Jones was 41 yards shy and would have been a third if not for missing three games his rookie year.
More to the point, only six wide receivers in the history of the league had a rookie season on par with Jackson’s average 16-game season of 65 catches for 1,125 yards and six touchdowns—with the last a decade ago. Only 11 rookies have averaged 70.3 yards per game and 17.2 yards per reception, which are Jackson’s career averages.
Maybe a rookie like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans can get the Raiders close, but that’s only if they draft one of them. Part of the problem with not landing Jackson is that Oakland now really needs to draft a No. 1 wide receiver. Having Jackson would have enabled the team to go in any direction it wanted in the draft.
The Raiders—like most organizations—claim they use the “best player available” draft strategy. What you might not realize is that that actually means the best player available relative to their need. The Ron Wolf scouting tree most often uses a horizontal draft board, as Danny Kelly explained in his recent piece for SBNation.com about how teams construct their draft boards.
"We grade for our team,” Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said, via Kelly. "We don't grade for the league. Our board basically represents that. We grade a guy based on whether we think he can compete with Bruce Irvin or Malcolm Smith or Bobby Wagner, and that's the way our board falls."
McKenzie and Schneider are both branches of the Wolf scouting tree.
By not signing Jackson, the Raiders' draft grades are going to be different. Maybe the grades won’t be drastically different, but they'll be different enough that the Raiders now have to heavily consider taking a receiver at No. 5 overall. If all the grades on the board are similar, a No. 1 receiver seems like Oakland's biggest need.
The Raiders don’t have the same type of need at defensive end, linebacker or offensive tackle as they do at wide receiver. The team signed James Jones, but he’s never been a No. 1 receiver. Although the Raiders have a solid group overall, none of them project as a No. 1.
Having Jackson would have also presented the Raiders with the opportunity to give their new quarterback, Matt Schaub, two play-making wide receivers instead of one. Oakland could have paired Jackson with Watkins or Evans to form a great tandem.
McKenzie had the opportunity to add a No. 1 and a rookie who can develop into a No. 1 to his trio of No. 2 receivers. Instead, the best he can do is bring in a rookie who can be a No. 1 down the line, which is really like having another No. 2 receiver in 2014. There’s a chance McKenzie won’t see 2015, so the timeline isn’t trivial.
A rookie like Watkins would draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses in Oakland, but they couldn’t realistically do that with Jackson on the opposite side. Defenses will probably take their chances with Jones and Rod Streater and focus their attention on Watkins if the Raiders manage to get him at No. 5 overall.
|Jackson vs. Raiders Receivers (Career Averages)|
|Andre Holmes (2013 Only)||2.5||43.1||.10||17.2|
One thing is for sure: The Raiders should have no problem bumping Denarius Moore down the depth chart. Moore should have had his breakout year by now, but he has hovered around 50 yards per game every year of his career. That’s No. 2 receiver territory and not much better than the alternatives already on the roster, like Jones, Streater and Andre Holmes.
Moore is also entering a contract year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Raiders were trying to trade him for an additional draft pick. Of course, trading him for an additional mid-round pick becomes a less ideal if there isn’t a replacement on the roster who is clearly better.
From the on-field perspective, not being able to lure Jackson to the Raiders hurts. From an off-field perspective, McKenzie may feel like he dodged a bullet. Jackson wouldn’t have been available if the Eagles didn’t have serious concerns about him in the locker room.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that McKenzie was leery about adding Jackson because of his reputation as a me-first player. While McKenzie has made it a point to bring in players of character over the past three years, he should be able bring in a talented player with a few warts by now. If he made an exception and drafted defensive tackle Stacy McGee in 2013, there is no reason he shouldn’t have made an exception for Jackson in 2014.
Maybe Jackson isn’t McKenzie’s ideal player, but isn’t that why he signed Jones, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Charles Woodson, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Maurice Jones-Drew and traded for Schaub? Isn’t the point of bringing in players of character so they can police the locker room and set examples for younger players?
If the Raiders can’t take a chance occasionally on a player like Jackson, all the veteran leadership McKenzie has brought in is a waste. Who, exactly, are all these leaders leading if not a young talent like Jackson?
Unlike some of McKenzie’s other mistakes and non-moves, there is no true alternative to Jackson. There is no Donald Penn to replace Jared Veldheer. There is no Schaub trade that enables the team to forgo drafting a quarterback early in the draft.
The only place McKenzie is going to find a No. 1 receiver now is the draft, where there is no guarantee that receiver will make it to No. 5. Even if right player makes it to No. 5, the Raiders will not only have to pull the trigger and hope that they get a very special rookie by historical standards.