Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2019

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Building blocks: The Raiders’ three first-rounders will largely determine what kind of team they bring to Las Vegas

Mayock Gruden

Jeff Chiu / Associated Press

Nick Bosa, center, talks with Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, left, and general manager Mike Mayock during an NFL local pro day April 11 at the team’s football facility in Alameda, Calif.

The Raiders left their fan base in an uproar this past year when they traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears in the preseason, and, to a lesser extent, when they dealt Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys at the trade deadline. Local fans should reserve the real riot, however, for the possibility of the Raiders striking out on this year’s NFL draft, which runs from April 25-27 in Nashville.

The long-term results of the Raiders’ picks could determine the franchise’s success during the next several years, including its beginnings in Las Vegas, starting with the 2020 season. Holding three first-round picks by virtue of the aforementioned trades—four of the top 35 selections and eight draft slots overall—the Raiders wield more power and potential than any other team in the league.

It’s all by design. Shedding Mack and Cooper might have alienated fans, but the basic logic checks out. There was no sense handing out massive, lengthy contracts and constraining the franchise’s future salary cap if coach Jon Gruden, who reportedly usurped personnel power from former general manager Reggie McKenzie, didn’t see the currently constructed roster as a contender. Getting younger and securing a handful of impact players on discounted, rookie deals is a wiser move before even considering the bonus of having a new core to usher in a relocation.

Problem is, that strategy is far easier formulated than executed. It’s also easy to be cynical when it comes to the Raiders, who arguably have the league’s worst recent drafting track record. Mack and Cooper have been the only Pro Bowlers among the Raiders’ past 10 first-round selections—a stretch of futility that began in 2007 when the team used the first overall pick on quarterback JaMarcus Russell, considered one of the worst picks in NFL history.

Widen the scope and the picture doesn’t get any prettier. In the past 20 years, the Raiders have drafted only two players in the first round with a career Approximate Value in excess of 50—Mack and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in 2003—and none currently above 70. Pro Football Reference created the metric—similar to baseball’s Wins Above Replacement in that it attempts to quantify a player’s value with one number—in part to more easily quantify the success of draft classes. Each of the Raiders’ three AFC West rivals has at least one first-round pick with a career AV of more than 70 and an average of five players above 50 over the past 20 years.

While it’s unfair to hold past draft sins against Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock, it might also be too optimistic to expect Mayock to succeed wildly in the draft in his first attempt. The 60-year-old has no previous experience as an NFL executive. He’s been a draft analyst for NFL Network the past several years, meaning he has made the rare transition from one of the many speculating on the draft to one of the few being speculated about.

Some have wondered if Mayock might use his considerable draft capital to trade up from the No. 4 overall pick and take either Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray or consensus top edge rusher Nick Bosa. Others have swung the other way, suggesting Mayock could trade down to secure an extra pick or two.

All eyes are on Mayock and Gruden at the 2019 NFL draft, as they should be. The initial fate of the Las Vegas Raiders hangs in the balance.

Click to enlarge photo

Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen is widely considered the second-best pass rusher available in the NFL draft this year.

5 potential first-round targets

It's nearly impossible to perfectly pinpoint where prospects wind up in the draft, but here are a few players most widely linked to the Raiders.

Josh Allen, outside linebacker, Kentucky: The Raiders need a pass rusher above all else, and out of the top two available—the other being Bosa—Allen seems more likely to be available at No. 4.

Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle, Alabama: Pro Football Focus graded Williams as the best defensive player in college football this season, and he's expected to be the top talent available at No. 4 overall.

Greedy Williams, cornerback, LSU: Two of the Raiders' past three first-round picks have been in the defensive backfield, but they still need help there after giving up an NFL-worst 8 yards per pass attempt last season.

Noah Fant, tight end, Iowa: Tight end is another hole after the Raiders lost Jared Cook to the New Orleans Saints in free agency, and Fant is slated to go near the end of the first round.

Josh Jacobs, running back, Alabama: The Raiders are in the market for a running back, and Jacobs is the favorite to be the first one off of the board in the mid-20s, where the Raiders hold two picks.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.