By most accounts, Reggie McKenzie hit a home run in last year’s draft. The Raiders general manager mined four rookie starters from his first five picks, including a pair of projected franchise cornerstones in linebacker Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr.
In sum, six of his eight 2014 picks are expected to be major contributors next season.
That’s pretty good work. Not like McKenzie would take a pat on the back. He pulled out the ol’ draft cliché recently when asked about his big draft, citing a three-year evaluation period before grading the year’s work.
New head coach Jack Del Rio was certainly impressed.
“We made some strides in improving the roster,” Del Rio said. “The cupboard is not bare. I think we had an excellent draft last year and we want to have an excellent draft this year going forward and continue to add to the nucleus of talent that we have here.”
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That is a must. McKenzie knows it. Del Rio knows it. Owner Mark Davis desperately wants it. The Raiders started to build a young foundation in 2014 and the evolution of some 2013 picks, but concrete isn’t set.
McKenzie has to strike gold again. Several times. The pressure is on to do so during this week’s NFL draft.
“We’re just trying to get it right,” McKenzie said. “We want to get the player that we feel can best help our team and that’s what we’re going to do. Whether there’s pressure in the first round or not, I want to hit on my seventh-round pick, too. So no more pressure than any other round.”
Finding productive players is expected early in the draft, and the Raiders need heavy contributors at No. 4 overall and again at No. 35.
McKenzie can show mettle by what happens after that.
“We have to continue to draft good players after the first couple of selections,” McKenzie said. “You need to try and really get better and upgrade your team from Round 3 on down.”
McKenzie has done well in the last two years by sticking to his draft board. That’s how he locked down solid players late. He got starting weakside linebacker Sio Moore in the third round of the 2013 draft. He found tight end Mychal Rivera and running back Latavius Murray in the sixth round that go-round.
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McKenzie excelled in the later rounds last year, getting left guard Gabe Jackson (third round), defensive tackle Justin Ellis (fourth round), cornerback Keith McGill (fourth round) and cornerback TJ Carrie deep in the seventh round.
That’s no easy task. It’s also a stark contrast to his first draft in 2012, when he didn’t have a pick until the third round but is left with reserve linebacker Miles Burris the only remaining contributor. Guard Tony Bergstrom – McKenzie’s first pick – remains on the team but was inactive throughout 2014.
Draft home runs take three full days to hit, and the Raiders need talent from every session to help flesh out this roster. Some needs are clearly stronger than others. Pass rusher and receiver top the list, whether he acknowledges that publicly or not. But McKenzie will stick with the best player available in an attempt to further strengthen this Raiders roster now and in the future.
“We had some players (in this draft) we’d love to have,” McKenzie said. “Positions don’t really matter. We just want to get really good players.”