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Inside the NFL: The Raiders are doing it right

In the same draft, the Oakland Raiders found a transformative defensive talent -- someone capable of single-handedly taking over games -- and a franchise quarterback.

They’ve used free agency to build one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. They’ve used the draft and free agency to add difference-making receivers.

They’ve made smart move after smart move, whether it’s grabbing an undrafted rookie or a marquee free agent or someone off the street, to backfill a roster with rock-solid components everywhere.

Yes, the Raiders, once a laughing stock for having general managers and coaches spin through a revolving door powered by horrific personnel decisions, are doing it right when it comes to building a quality team.

Remember Andrew Walter and JaMarcus Russell and all of those other quarterbacking disasters of the past 14 years? That seems like ancient history now. These Raiders have their act together. Their AFC-best 9-2 record verifies as much, although it doesn’t tell the entire story.

This is a team that has been put together for sustainable success, that actually could become much better in the next couple of years. This is a model that other NFL franchises – like the 6-5 Buffalo Bills, who face the Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Sunday – would be wise to follow.

Reggie McKenzie, who became the Raiders’ general manager in 2012, can take a bow for what he and the rest of his player-personnel staff have done, especially in the last three seasons. Their work is being admired by many current and former NFL executives.

Working 'draft process'

“I think it comes from doing a good job of studying players through the draft process and relying on that, not just for undrafted free agents but for other opportunities that might come across,” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM and current ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst Mark Dominik said.

The starting point of the Raiders’ rebirth was the 2014 draft.

They used the fifth overall pick on defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack from the University at Buffalo. He has since demonstrated that he should have been chosen four spots higher. Mack is one of the most dominant players at any position.

“I had actually drafted" defensive end "Steven Means out of Buffalo the year before" in the fifth round "in Tampa Bay,” Dominik said. “While studying tape of Means, we go, ‘Who is this guy in Buffalo?’ He was just blowing it up on film. We looked his name up and it was Khalil Mack. We were like, ‘This guy going to be special.’”

He apparently wasn’t special enough for the Bills, who after trading 2015 first- and fourth-round picks to climb to the fourth overall spot in 2014, chose wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins’ career has so far been defined more by chronic injuries than high-level production.

The move continues to be heavily second-guessed because it was based on the Bills’ efforts to prop up their struggling starting quarterback, EJ Manuel, who now is a backup. The Raiders did no such reaching. “It’s one thing to do what Atlanta did (trading up in 2011) to get Julio Jones, when you’ve got Matt Ryan,” Dominik said. “It’s a little different when you’re not sure you’ve got the right trigger man to do this kind of trade. The Raiders let the board come to them.”

Did it ever. In the second round, a gift arrived in the form of quarterback Derek Carr from Fresno State. He now ranks in the top 10 of almost every major passing category and is a strong candidate to be league MVP.

Carr’s availability in the second round was a function of concerns over the level of competition he faced, a particularly poor showing against USC, and his last name. His older brother, David, another former Fresno State standout, was a bust after the Houston Texans made him the top overall pick in 2002.

'Doing their homework'

As an NFL analyst, Dominik was in the minority touting Carr as a first-round prospect.

“I kept looking at the release mechanics and the Type-A personality,” he said. “The Raiders didn’t let the last name on the back of the jersey affect them. Everybody thought, ‘He’s the same as the brother,’ and asked, ‘Will he take the heat? Can he take the pressure?’ I think that too many people dug into that. The Raiders did their homework.”

Another payoff came in the third round, when they selected guard Gabe Jackson from Mississippi State. He starts on the right side of arguably the third-best offensive line in the NFL (after those of the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins).

Perhaps McKenzie’s most impressive work has been in assembling the line that excels at helping to keep Carr in one piece. He signed three outstanding free agents in left tackle Donald Penn (from Tampa Bay), left guard Kelechi Osemele (from Baltimore), and center Rodney Hudson (from Kansas City).

“To go three-for-three in free agency on the offensive line, that’s hard to do,” Dominik said.

Once the Raiders addressed quarterback and the line, it was time to give their offense some weapons. Their two best came in 2015 in the form of receivers Amari Cooper, the fourth overall pick from Alabama, and Michael Crabtree, a free-agent signee from the San Francisco 49ers. Cooper leads the Raiders with 66 receptions for 922 yards and three touchdowns, while Crabtree has 60 catches for 711 yards and six scores.

Big things were expected of Cooper, but Crabtree? Not so much. The feeling throughout the NFL was that he was on the downslide after suffering a torn Achilles in 2013. McKenzie signed him to a one-year, $3.2-million contract with $1.8 million in incentives.

“I wasn’t sure that Crabtree would reinvigorate his career the way he has,” Dominik said. “But that was just a great job, super smart, and they did it and they deserve all the credit in investing in him and believing in him and thinking that Michael Crabtree could be a star receiver again. And they were right.”

Late in 2015, McKenzie gave Crabtree a four-year, $35-million extension.

During the offseason, the GM grabbed a strong defensive leader in free-agent linebacker Bruce Irvin from Seattle. And although the Raiders’ secondary is suspect, the team did find an excellent cornerback in David Amerson, after he was waived by the Washington Redskins last year. The Raiders also gave him a lucrative contract extension.

“That goes back to work that you do as a college scout and where you put him on the board and then using that same information, as well as your pro scouts now, to say, ‘Who’s going to get cut? Who can we sign from guys that are going to hit the waiver wire? And who are we going to invite, undrafted, to this football team or give minimal contracts to that we think have a chance to make it,’” Dominik said. “And the Raiders have done a very good job of using those resources and then re-relying on them throughout the year.”

More excitement to come

Sound. Intelligent. Methodical. Everything done in a specific order. You find core pieces and surround them with supporting pieces.

It might not be the sexiest process, but the results surely are eye-catching.

“Did Reggie McKenzie want to go into the draft and get toys and bells and whistles? Yes, in the worst way,” Dominik said. “Those are fun drafts to have, but what Reggie did, which was so critical, was he got the quarterback and then he went and got the bells and whistles. It wasn’t, ‘We’ve got Amari Cooper, now let’s go find a quarterback.’ It was, ‘We’ve got the quarterback, now let’s surround him with talent.’

“And I still think of how much fun it’s going to be for the Raiders. As much as you can like what" running back "Latavius Murray is doing, if you had a bellwether type of back, also? That’s frightening. If they had a (Jimmy) Graham/(Tyler) Eifert first-round-type of tight end with Derek Carr? Wow! What they have going forward is exciting, because they took care of the fundamental part, which was finding the quarterback, and then you make sure he can stay upright, stay healthy, and then you start to fill in around him. And that’s what the Raiders have exactly done.”

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