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After rough beginning, McKenzie has earned his extension

The Raiders haven’t had a winning season since 2002, including the last four years when the Raiders have been helmed by first-time GM Reggie McKenzie. Despite no playoff berths and a poor return of wins in his time, McKenzie and the Raiders have agreed to a 4-year extension of his contract the team revealed last night.

Mark Davis broke the news at a dinner for Alumni Weekend, speaking to a large group of former Raider players and assorted sponsors. “Reggie’s contract was up at the end of this year, and we felt was time to reward him for the job that he has done,” Davis explained.

Response from media and Raider Nation was overwhelmingly positive but it hasn’t always been this way. McKenzie’s time in Oakland had a very rough start, with two underwhelming Drafts back to back.

In 2012, McKenzie’s first Draft, the Raiders were without any true picks in the first 4 rounds due to many poor trades – Carson Palmer cost the team their 1st round pick; trading up to get Joe Barksdale in 2012 took their second; taking Terrelle Pryor in the Supplemental draft meant the Raiders were without their third round pick; and the trade for Jason Campbell in 2010 cost the team their 4th round selection in ’12.

The team was awarded three Compensatory selections which were slotted at the end of the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Because Compensatory picks are slotted at the end of rounds, those three picks were really closer to being fourth, fifth and sixth round picks.

None of the players taken in the 2012 Draft remain on the team although several still remain in the league. McKenzie’s first-ever selection, Tony Bergstrom who was taken at #95 overall in ’12, will be competing for the Texans’ starting Center job this year. Overall, however, it was a poor class.

Understanding fans were willing to forgive McKenzie his initial draft due to the poor hand he had been dealt in terms of draft picks, however. After his first draft, McKenzie also instituted sweeping changes in the scouting department, firing many long-time Raiders scouts to bring in people with whom he was more comfortable and bringing in an organizational computer system to bring the team’s scouting efforts into the 21st century.

The heat on McKenzie was much greater, however, after his 2013 Draft also showed poor returns. McKenzie traded out of the #3 overall spot and down to #12 and then selected a surprise pick in DJ Hayden, who hadn’t played football since having surgery on his heart. The skeptics had a field day with the Hayden selection and he’s not proven them wrong in the years since being drafted. As the 2016 season approaches, the Raiders hope he can earn the nickel corner position but there is no guarantee that he will.

The Raiders were without a second round pick in 2013 – also due to the Carson Palmer trade – but their trade down to #12 garnered them a second round pick from Miami and the Raiders chose Menelik Watson. Like Hayden, the Raiders haven’t received many returns from Watson to date but unlike Hayden that has been due to injury. Watson looked likely to be the starting right tackle for the team last year but a season-ending injury delayed any impact from him. He is getting first team reps over Austin Howard to start the 2016 season but his health is still a concern.

Outside of Hayden and Watson, only Latavius Murray and Mychal Rivera, both taken in the 6th round, are still on the team. Last year, the team traded Brice Butler to Dallas for a swap from the sixth to the fifth round (they used the pick they got on DeAndre Washington) and they traded Sio Moore to the Colts for a sixth round pick (used on Cory James).

2014 has proven to be a dramatic turning point for the organization and McKenzie, however, as the team took two cornerstone players with their first two picks – Khalil Mack at #5 overall and Derek Carr at #36 overall. They also added a few key players in other rounds, most notably immediate starters in guard Gabe Jackson and defensive tackle Justin Ellis as well as late-round gem, corner/safety TJ Carrie.

With Mack and Carr, the Raiders arrow started to point up but there still weren’t enough play-makers on the team and Oakland stumbled to a 3-13 record. The calls for McKenzie’s job were quite loud after the 2014 season but Mark Davis held firm that he felt McKenzie was the best person for the job and he was not going to fire him only 3 years into his contract. Again, this was met with much skepticism across the league as wins had not come during his tenure at all.

In 2015, McKenzie had another strong draft and added dynamic WR Amari Cooper, surprisingly good DT/DE Mario Edwards, and burgeoning TE Clive Walford with his first 3 picks. Ben Heeney, a 2015 fifth round pick, is in line to be a starter at inside linebacker in 2016, too.

It is too early to say much about McKenzie’s most recent 2016 Draft but many believe it to be strong as well. Karl Joseph, a somewhat surprising pick at #`14 overall, is widely considered to have been the best safety in the Draft although he was coming off a serious injury. Jihad Ward, the teams pick in the second round, wasn’t on many people’s radar that early but early camp reviews from coaches have been very positive. The Raiders took a better known player, Shilique Calhoun, in the third and are excited to see his skillset on the team as a rotational backup in 2016.

Because of McKenzie’s recent hits in both the draft and free agency, most of the 2016 Draft class is expected to start their career as a backup with only Joseph in line to be a day 1 starter.

This transition to drafting talented players and allowing them time to grow before needing a starting impact from them should pay big dividends for the team in the future and marks what I see as another turning point for the team. If the Raiders can continue to draft well and develop talent, they can take the next step, which is fielding a consistently talented team with depth at most positions.

 

McKenzie has not been perfect – he would admit that himself. But after a rocky start, he’s been as good a GM as any other in the league with his last 3 Drafts looking strong and building a great foundation for the team. With a core of young players, free agents have been actively interested in joining the team and that has helped bolster most of the team’s remaining weaknesses like additional pass rushers (Bruce Irvin), offensive line (Kelechi Osemele), and free safety (Reggie Nelson).

The team comes into 2016 ready to compete with the best teams in the league and if the Raiders do not make the playoffs, it will be seen as a major disappointment for the team that McKenzie built.

When McKenzie arrived as the GM of the Raiders, it was one of the least desirable positions in the league. It had an outdated scouting department, lacked many high picks in the first few years, had a salary cap position that was unlike any other team had ever had and had to make major cuts and absorb dead money to set up the team for future success. McKenzie charted the waters calmly and has brought the team to the brink of sustain success – something that eAl Davis struggled to accomplish in the salary cap era.

McKenzie had one year left on his initial 5-year contract and Davis wanted to again express his confidence in his guy – the only GM Mark Davis has ever had. McKenzie has earned his extension with recent year’s draft success. Now, success on the field must follow.