Reggie McKenzie didn’t own a first-round pick in his first draft as Raiders general manager. A previous regime traded it away. His second-round pick, too.
He has had a full compliment ever since, and those picks have been in prime spots. They were originally slotted in the top five three years running, making it easier to ensure good players enter the fray.
The Raiders got Khalil Mack at No. 5 in 2014. They got Amari Cooper at No. 4 in 2015.
McKenzie came away smelling like a rose after ideal selections were available at his assigned spot. There wasn’t long to wait, and a far better chance to nailing a selection in the top five.
It’s a little harder at No. 14 overall. The lower spot is a product of competitive play following a 7-9 campaign. It’s harder to hit and, with so many selections above him, it’s near impossible to predict player availability this time around.
“It’s a little different,” McKenzie said. “I prefer to be picking 32nd, but you know, the lower you pick, as far as down the line, it’s harder to figure out what the other teams are going to do. This is different than picking top five.”
Picking mid-round is a good problem to have, one that will make his job harder during a three-day NFL draft that starts on Thursday evening.
The selection spot should mitigate expectations. A top five selection should be good right away. A mid-round pick doesn’t have the same outlook.
That doesn’t lessen the weight on McKenzie’s shoulders for the first round on down. After all, McKenzie has a reputation to uphold.
He has produced excellent draft classes the last two years lauded by fans and pundits alike. He has 10 projected starters from his last three drafts, nine from the previous two. That includes Mack, Cooper and franchise quarterback Derek Carr.
McKenzie feels like he must show golden touch in with a quality draft class that could vault his Raiders into steady contention.
“I think there’s more pressure this year. That’s my approach,” McKenzie said. “I really do (feel that way). You guys write about how good Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper and Derek Carr and all these guys are. How can that not put pressure on me? We have to continue to get really good players in here. We’re looking forward to build on that.”
It’s impossible to know how’ll he’ll construct it this time around. The Raiders must adjust on the fly at No. 14. They need help at each level of defense especially the secondary. They could end up with top 10 talents Myles Jack or Ezekiel Elliott available at No. 14. They like Houston cornerback William Jackson III and Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves and could take a cover man there. They could go with a different position group like linebacker or trade down and take a player like Mississippi defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
There are so many variables making a factual prediction for a first-round pick virtually impossible. Every correct answer requires a little luck.
The Raiders are looking for impact players early, but need hits after Thursday’s opening salvo. That’s how strong rosters are built.
McKenzie has built a young foundation well beyond first-round picks. The Raiders have gleaned Carr, guard Gabe Jackson, tight end Clive Walford and defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr, etc., from later rounds. That trend must continue to strengthen this young foundation.
While McKenzie feels pressure to keep connecting, there is something different over previous years. He doesn’t myriad starters from each class just to compete. The Raiders supplemented well in free agency the past two seasons, freer than ever to take the best player available in every round. Need always intersects these selections, but he could draft for depth or upgrades over current quality.
McKenzie has kept keen focus on the big picture, at times filling lesser needs for better players. Case in point: the Raiders didn’t draft a receiver in 2014 despite a desperate need for one. They didn’t take a cornerback until the seventh round last year despite a young, suspect position that didn’t play well.
“We’re still going to get the best player,” McKenzie said. “We’re not about just going for a specific need. We want to get the best player that can help this football team. Philosophy still hasn’t changed.”
McKenzie’s on a hot streak when it comes to drafting players. It didn’t start that way. The 2012 draft was useless, though it’s excused because the Raiders didn’t have a first and second round pick. The 2013 draft had some duds from DJ Hayden, Menelik Watson and Sio Moore. McKenzie has gotten better, with the 2014 draft as his signature.
“I look at Reggie McKenzie and say I see a guy growing into a really high-level general manager,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “You can see it in his drafts and you can see it in free agency.”