NAPA – The Raiders have won 11 games during Reggie McKenzie’s three years as general manager. That isn’t good -- okay, it's terrible -- and McKenzie knows it.
The 52-year old was also ready for hard times. He knew he’d have to tear things down before building them back up.
After all, sometimes fires are good for a forest.
McKenzie spent his first few years getting right with the salary cap and stockpiling draft picks, a platinum commodity for a GM looking to build a roster through amateur selection.
McKenzie transitioned from deconstruction to reconstruction, as owner Mark Davis put it, heading into last offseason. The salary cap space wasn’t a huge help. Stacking quality draft classes surely has. There’s optimism coursing through the Napa Valley Marriott, as the Raiders believe better days are on the immediate horizon.
Wins will be the ultimate litmus test, but a young foundation, upgraded talent and an energetic coaching staff are melting snow after a long, hard winter.
“Nobody likes losing, but I knew I had to take some lumps,” McKenzie said. “It’s great to see it come together like the way I’d planned it, with the roster being largely built through the draft. It’s an exciting time for us.
“This is the best I’ve felt heading into a training camp since I’ve been here. I’m anxiously waiting for preseason games. I want to see how they jell and come together because I feel pretty good about this team. Really good.”
It helps to have a possible franchise quarterback in Derek Carr, a potentially dominant pass rusher in Khalil Mack and game-altering receiver in Amari Cooper. It helps to have battle-tested veterans like receiver Michael Crabtree and center Rodney Hudson, and savvy veterans like end Justin Tuck and safety Charles Woodson.
There’s a decent mix of youth and experience, but McKenzie knows the Raiders will only goes as far as their young core takes them. That group is featured heavily atop the depth chart. The Raiders should have 11 of 22 starters come from McKenzie’s last three draft classes, with many more stepping in as heavy contributors.
“Parts of these last three draft classes are going to have to step up, and they’re going to have to play,” McKenzie said. “We have young guys and key positions who are going to have to play a big part.
“It’s always nice to have the seven, eight-year vet who can still stay with the team for a second and third contract. But we don’t have a whole lot of guys like that here. You want a mixture of young guys and vets, but the bottom line is that you have to draft well. You have to pick up pieces as you go like Woodson and Tuck, and that goes a long way, but the young guys have to contribute.”
The Raiders have a higher level of talent than years past, with more injury protection at most positions. The Raiders were barren in 2013, and incredibly thin last season. This roster still has holes, but far fewer than before.
“We’re big and strong. We’re fast,” McKenzie said. “I like the way the players are responding to the coaches. Energy is off the chain. It’s starting to look the way I like it to look. Players are flying around, working in the right direction. It’s been competitive and it will be a competitive camp at every position. It’s going to bring out the best in each and every one of them.”
While that may not take this group to .500, there’s a strong belief that the Raiders will be much more competitive than in years past, and are certainly headed in the right direction.
“We’re getting close,” McKenzie said. “I’ll say we’ve finally got it together when the wins start coming in. I feel a whole lot better about where we are. I’m encouraged. I’m excited to see this team play. This is the most excited I’ve been coming into Napa, that’s for sure.”