The Oakland Raiders appear to be on the right track despite winning just 11 games over the last three seasons. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie finally had a full allotment of draft picks in 2014 and ended up drafting five starters—including quarterback Derek Carr and edge player Khalil Mack.
The rebuilding process hasn’t always gone well for the Raiders, but they are finally ready for the key third and final phase—a second consecutive successful draft. If the Raiders don’t do well in the 2015 NFL draft, they risk stalling the rebuild entirely.
The Raiders are like a classic muscle car that’s been sitting in a garage for over a decade. McKenzie is the mechanic, and he got it started in 2014, but if he doesn’t give it some gas in 2015, the owner will probably seek a second opinion.
So much hinges on this draft for the Raiders that it’s hard to overstate the importance of it. McKenzie’s job depends on the record turning around in 2015, so he’ll need instant contributions from the No. 4 overall pick and the rest of the draft class.
It’s also an important draft for Carr, who needs all the help he can get to solidify himself as the franchise quarterback. If Carr fails to build upon his rookie season in a significant way, the Raiders may have to go back to the drawing board at the league’s most important position.
That’s something the Raiders must try to avoid at all costs, so it’s imperative that the Raiders give Carr all the help he requires. Everyone knows the Raiders have a glaring need for a No. 1 wide receiver, but the needs on offense go beyond that.
The team doesn’t appear to trust running back Latavius Murray, veteran Khalif Barnes is the current starter at right guard and left tackle Donald Penn isn’t getting any younger. Tight end is also a position where the Raiders can use an upgrade in the blocking department.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Raiders tried to find help at running back, offensive line and tight end in the middle rounds. The cupboard isn’t bare on offense, but it’s full of perishables and cans without labels.
It can take years to find a franchise quarterback. It took the Raiders over a decade just to find Carr. Getting Carr the help he needs to become a top quarterback in the league is imperative to the team’s success both in 2015 and beyond.
That’s why many believe the Raiders should go with a wide receiver at No. 4 overall. Alabama’s Amari Cooper or West Virginia’s Kevin White are the popular choices, although only Cooper has the endorsement of Cliff Branch and Tim Brown, arguably the two best wide receivers to wear the silver and black.
"I am on my knees every day, begging and pleading to Mark Davis to get Amari Cooper," said Branch, via Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group.
"From what I saw from Amari Cooper, he is very special," said Brown. “He's a guy that can come in and be a Day 1 starter, and I think it would be wise of them to bring in another guy to go with Michael Crabtree.”
Whether McKenzie listens to two guys that know a thing or two about playing the receiver position remains a mystery until Thursday night. One of the reasons he might go in another direction is that the Raiders have a similar problem on defense.
Mack was a star as a rookie, but he’ll need pieces around him to shine. If the Raiders can’t put some quality pieces around him via the draft, they run the risk of wasting his best playing years.
It comes down to whether a player like defensive lineman Leonard Williams, a pass-rusher like Vic Beasley or a wide receiver will have the bigger impact on the Raiders in 2015. It’s not an easy question to answer, although pass-rush ability is among the most difficult to find.
A pass-rusher remains a dark-horse pick at No. 4 because most of the talk has revolved around Williams and the receivers. Beasley seems to think the Raiders like him enough to make him their first-round selection.
"No team has shown more interest than the others; I just have predictions where I might land," Beasley told WZGV, via NFL.com, on Monday. "Probably between the Falcons, the Bears and the Raiders. That's what I'm picking."
The Raiders also have aging contributors like safety Charles Woodson and defensive end Justin Tuck, who won’t be around for many more years. Woodson and Tuck are the defensive leaders, so the Raiders need to find a young defensive leader to pair with the more mild-mannered Mack.
On both sides of the ball, the Raiders have had to resort to filling holes in free agency over the last two seasons. That’ll likely continue to a lesser extent next offseason, but beyond that will largely depend on the success or failure of the team’s draft picks.
The Raiders simply can’t afford to miss on their top draft selections in 2015. If the Raiders don’t help Carr with the No. 4 overall pick, there will be pressure to do so in the second round. If they do end up going with wide receiver at No. 4, there would be pressure to add a pass-rusher in the second.
Unlike the 2014 NFL draft, the Raiders will have to dig a little deeper and draft a little better to find the same kind of impact in this draft. If they manage another successful draft, the Raiders will be well on their way to respectability and, who knows, maybe even the playoffs in the near future.