Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie doesn’t get enough credit for bringing in a spectacular 2014 draft class.
The Raiders have been the Internet pinata hit with mockery and disparaging remarks all over Twitter:
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but Raider redemption is upon us. Soon masses of bandwagon fans will dust off their old Tim Brown jerseys or buy new Derek Carr jerseys to pledge an artificial allegiance to a franchise on the rise.
True fanbase loyalty doesn’t always come with winning. It comes from the belief your franchise is doing the right thing to bring home a coveted championship, sometimes with constructive criticism. While it’s way too early for Raider Nation to yell “Super Bowl or bust,” it’s time to take the Silver and Black seriously. Reason points to a solid draft class poised to become a cornerstone of the franchise.
Let’s put down the pompoms and look at the potential impact the 2014 class brings piece by piece.
Elite Defensive Play and Pass-Rusher?
Many people would say outside linebacker Khalil Mack was a can’t-miss pick, but the same was said about quarterback JaMarcus Russell when he was the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Obviously, top-five picks aren’t always a given in terms of immediate or any type of impact at all.
Mack ranked as the best 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus, but he isn't content with that accolade. He wants to make a bigger splash as a game-changer, per ESPN.com’s Jeffri Chadiha:
"I definitely want to get after the quarterback more this year," Mack said. "I got some hits [in 2014], but people didn't really see what I can do. Those sack numbers I had really weren't me. At the end of the day, you want people to see you at your best."
Mack is correct. Those sack numbers don’t reflect his full potential. He accumulated 28.5 sacks in four years at Buffalo. He recorded 10.5 sacks in his senior year before entering the NFL. As a pass-rusher, he came into the league on a tear. Four measly sacks come off as a slight disappointment, and that’s what fuels his hunger.
The Raiders' best defensive player is primed for another productive year, one that’ll get him the recognition he deserves as a playmaker with a double-digit sack total.
Rookie on the Rise to Franchise Quarterback?
The term franchise quarterback gets thrown around so easily and prematurely. Carr hasn’t established himself as the next great signal-caller under center—shoutout to the late Ken Stabler—but the organization has armed him with the weapons to elevate his status.
The 2014 draft focused on getting pieces, and the subsequent draft brought in the attachments. Wide receiver Amari Cooper, tight end Clive Walford and an old buddy from Fresno State, undrafted wide receiver Josh Harper, are just a few of the reasons to remove Carr’s training wheels.
Carr worked from a very limited playbook that didn’t allow him to take many chances simply because the roster lacked the personnel. He must improve on a 58.1 percent completion percentage and a subpar 5.46 yards-per-pass-attempt average, per PFF. Both of those statistics placed him at the bottom of the barrel, which justifies MMQB writer Andy Benoit's quarterback rankings.
Benoit ranked Carr 19th among the starting 32 quarterbacks in the league. He’s basically placing Carr in the middle of the barrel, where he should be at this point. Carr showed flashes as a rookie with little talent; now let’s see what he does with the wealth of talent around him. The Raiders would solve half of the puzzle in putting together a consistent playoff contender if Carr makes good use of the weapons around him.
Pillars in the Trenches?
You hear the saying all the time: “Teams must win in the trenches.” What does it really mean?
In 2014, the Dallas Cowboys drafted offensive lineman Zack Martin, a less flashy pick by owner Jerry Jones’ standards. Running back DeMarco Murray exploded in the backfield in the following season. He led the league by having nearly 500 rushing yards more than the next ball-carrier. The Cowboys rode him all the way to the NFC Divisional Round.
This elevated the idea of strengthening the guts of the offensive line to propel the rushing attack and protect the quarterback. In 2014, the Cowboys also had the third best pass-blocking offensive line, per PFF.
The Cowboys looked nothing close to America’s Team in recent memory, and now they’re the cream of the crop. Why? Well, on offense they typically win their battles in the trenches.
Oakland drafted Gabe Jackson, whom offensive line coach Mike Tice projected as a rising star, per Raiders.com.
One player that has stood out from the rest, according to Tice, is second-year guard Gabe Jackson. Jackson started 12 games in 2014 and is headed in the right direction:
I think a guy that’s had the best offseason of everybody, and that’s Gabe Jackson out of Mississippi State. [I’ve] had some familiarity with him in the Senior Bowl two years ago, when we coached the Senior Bowl when I was in Atlanta, he was on the opposing team and I got to spend some time with him. Gabe is a big, athletic, strong -- great football background. His dad was a high school football coach. I think he’s a rising star. I think he has a chance to be a really good one.
Jackson ranked 22nd among starting guards in Bleacher Report writer Matt Miller's offensive guard rankings. Jackson also ranked ninth among starting guards in pass blocking, per PFF. Right now, he contributes to an ironclad pass protection on Carr’s blind side.
McKenzie picked up a bull in the fourth round in Justin Ellis. He couldn’t plug the middle of a 4-3 defense alone, but he’s the reason the Raiders run defense was just bad and not horrendous. Oakland ranked 22nd against the run, but Ellis ranked 16th against the run, per PFF. Antonio Smith played alongside Ellis and ranked dead last against the run.
You can blame Smith or former defensive coordinator Jason Tarver for a poor scheme against the rushing attack, but don’t blame Ellis. This year, he’s paired with Dan Williams, who ranked eighth against the rush last season. The move elevates Ellis’ value as a run-stopper and transforms the Raiders from being soft to stout in the trenches.
Pass Defenders in a Pass-Happy League?
Travis Carrie rose head and shoulders above the cornerbacks on the depth chart with a solid rookie season. Both Carlos Rogers and D.J. Hayden played nearly half the season because of injuries. Carrie seized the opportunity.
|Raiders Cornerbacks in 2014|
|Player||Snaps||Interceptions||Passes Defensed||Yards Allowed in Coverage||TDs Allowed in Coverage|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
As Hayden continued to disappoint, giving up six touchdowns in 10 games, Carrie remained stingy with surrendering yards and touchdowns. He ultimately established himself as the No. 1 cornerback heading into the 2015 season. That undisputed label is solidified with the coaching staff's decision to give Keith McGill a majority of the first-team reps during mandatory minicamp, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson.
McGill hasn’t proved much of anything yet, but defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. probably looked at Hayden’s subpar numbers then noticed the length and physicality McGill brings that Hayden cannot.
The 2014 draft class is the gift that keeps giving even at the expense of the 2013 draft class, pending McGill's potential push as a starter.
Finally, Jonathan Dowling hasn’t shown much of anything outside of a standout practice during mandatory minicamp, per Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien, but Charles Woodson is nearing retirement.
When an opportunity presents itself to Dowling, he usually takes it back to the house. The Raiders will be equipped to take on the league’s best passing attacks if he carries over that ball-hawk mentality from Western Kentucky.
What do you think of the Raiders' 2014 draft class? All opinions welcome. Follow Maurice Moton on Twitter for NFL and Raiders news.