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2018 NFL Draft Continues to Beg the Question: What Are the Raiders Doing?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutApril 28, 2018

Oakland Raiders' Kolton Miller, right, listens to coach Jon Gruden during an NFL football draft media conference Friday, April 27, 2018, in Alameda, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

When the Oakland Raiders hired Jon Gruden in early January to be their head coach again, it looked as if the former Monday Night Football color man and the brains behind ESPN's Gruden's QB Camp was going to set his team back to 1998, when Al Davis hired him to be Oakland's head coach the first time around. Only this time, Gruden was coming in with a much bigger name and contract (a 10-year, $100 million agreement), and certainly more pull in how personnel decisions were going to be made than as a first-time head coach in the last millennium.

"Are you talking about the analytics, the GPS, all the modern technology? Man, I'm trying to throw the game back to 1998," Gruden told reporters at the 2018 scouting combine. "As a broadcaster, I went around and observed every team, asked a lot of questions, took a look at the facilities, how they're doing business, there's a stack of analytic data or 'DAY-tuh,' however you want to say that word, people don't even know how to read it. It's one thing to have the data—or DAY-tuh—it's another thing to know how to read the damn thing.

"So, I'm not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology. I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still thing doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we're going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit."

Gruden's cavalier dismissal of "DAY-tuh" isn't an intrinsic problem if he came back to the NFL with a specific plan that replaced analytics as an overarching philosophy regarding player acquisition and development. There are plenty of gifted coaches and executives in the league who give sabermetrics a cursory look, at best. More disconcerting for the Raiders franchise is that, to this point in time, Gruden seems to be leaning on assistant coaches he knew or worked with in his former iteration as a head coach from 1998 through 2008.

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Oakland's 2018 free-agency run certainly forwarded the narrative that Gruden wanted to party like it's 1999—the Raiders' primary acquisitions were receiver Jordy Nelson and running back Doug Martin, two formerly dynamic skill players proven to be past their primes.

And after the first two days of Gruden's first draft in 10 years, the Raiders added to the questions with a draft class that appears to be far more about potential than production, with some head-scratching evaluative reaches.

In the first round, the Raiders traded from their original tenth pick, moving down to 15 and picking up Arizona's third-round pick (79th overall) and fifth-rounder (152nd overall). With the 15th pick, they selected UCLA left tackle Kolton Miller, a big, athletic blocker who protected Josh Rosen's blind side. Per Pro Football Focus, Miller allowed just 16 total pressures in 2017, but his tape shows a player prone to getting too far up out of his stance, losing leverage at the point of attack.

When Miller gets low to provide leverage and plays with a wide base, he's an acceptable left tackle prospect, but there's technique work to be done before he's able to consistently deal with the NFL's best edge-rushers.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

New offensive line coach Tom Cable was reportedly pounding the table for Miller, per Vic Tafur of The Athletic, and that's a problem. During his time as the builder of Seattle's offensive line from 2011 through 2017, he made several disastrous personnel decisions with the full support of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Cable's combination of wavering talent in evaluation and iffy coaching led to Seattle's offensive line declining to perhaps the worst unit in the league.

So, as Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said, per Tafur, that Cable played a big part in the Miller pick on Thursday night, that should raise several red flags. Cable was able to double down on Friday when the Raiders took North Carolina A&T tackle Brandon Parker with the first pick in the third round. Parker, a massive blocker, stood out at the Senior Bowl when asked to play right tackle, but his tape—even against subpar competition—shows a player who's inconsistent in his pass set and needs a lot of technique work.

So, after McKenzie brought in left tackle Donald Penn and center Rodney Hudson through free agency, and guard Gabe Jackson through the draft, as dominant players, the new ideology seems to be to overdraft based on potential and hope the coaching staff can work it all out. Based on Cable's history, the Raiders may have a long wait before that happens—if that happens at all.

With the third-round pick in the Cardinals deal, Oakland traded for ex-Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, a player in the last year of his rookie contract. Bryant, a physically gifted but maddeningly inconsistent receiver, lost the entire 2016 season to suspension after multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policy. He kept his nose clean in 2017, catching 50 passes for 603 yards and three touchdowns, but his NFL history speaks to potential obstructed by off-field issues.

Oakland also selected two defensive players on the second day, and LSU defensive end Arden Key was the most prominent name. The Raiders were able to get Key with the 87th overall pick in the third round despite his 11-sack season in 2016 because he presented several issues through his time with the Tigers.

Per Eric Edholm of Pro Football Weekly, Key left the team for a time after the 2016 season to address "personal issues"—which turned out to be a trip to rehab for marijuana use. Key also underwent shoulder surgery against the advice of team doctors, which isn't a problem in and of itself, but his returning to the program at 278 pounds when he played at 240 pounds certainly was. Key managed just four sacks in 2017, and while he has flashes of great potential, they're (stop us if you've heard this one before) obstructed by personal issues.

Oakland's second-round pick, Sam Houston State defensive tackle P.J. Hall, is extremely athletic—at 6'0", 308 pounds, he set an FCS record with 86.5 tackles for loss, as well as 42 sacks and 14 blocked kicks. He fits the modern NFL because he's played both end and tackle and moved all over the line in college, but he'll face his own level of competition concerns.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

This boom-or-bust strategy brought to player evaluation and acquisition, be it in free agency or the draft, goes against what McKenzie did when he had control of the team from his hire in 2012 through 2017.

McKenzie showed a fine eye for low-risk, high-reward talent with the picks of quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack and a host of lesser-rated contributors, like cornerback T.J. Carrie, defensive tackle Justin Ellis, safety Karl Joseph and the aforementioned Gabe Jackson, and though he had his whiffs (first-round cornerbacks D.J. Hayden and Gareon Conley were not outstanding selections, and he made some howling errors on free-agent defensive backs), he had a plan that improved the team.

So far, Gruden has not shown the same skills. Whether it's his decade-long layoff from the league or an insistence that the game can work the same way as it did when he was last coaching, he's made few moves that make sense. Perhaps a new focus on "DAY-tuh," or at the very least a core philosophy that brings more talent than trouble to the team, should be next on his to-do list.

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