No excuses for Raiders in this draft

May, 6, 2014
May 6
8:00
AM ET
Reggie McKenzieBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsOakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie needs to find a playmaker with his first-round pick.
And with the fifth pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select ...

Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins? Reggie McKenzie can only hope.

Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack? McKenzie can only dream.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney? Let's not get crazy now.

This much is true, though: In advance of the draft getting underway Thursday at Radio City Music Hall in New York, McKenzie needs to get his first pick right, and the Raiders general manager has no excuses this time around.

McKenzie's initial draft in Oakland saw him without a selection until the end of the third round, No. 95 overall, which he used on offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom, who has played in nine games. Total.

Last year, McKenzie had the No. 3 overall pick and was so enamored by injured cornerback D.J. Hayden that he would have taken him third had he not found a willing trade partner in the Miami Dolphins to move back to No. 12, where Hayden was still available. Forget for a second, if you can, that Hayden had undergone heart surgery the previous November after a practice collision nearly killed him. In pure football terms, the Raiders' biggest need was seemingly on the interior of the defensive line and Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd were available.

Hayden played catch-up all season and appeared in just eight games before going on injured reserve with a groin injury. But even if Hayden turns into the second coming of Mike Haynes and the Raiders figured Season 1 of Hayden's four-year rookie contract was a wash when they drafted him, it would be a strange philosophy for a franchise in Year 2 of a two-year "deconstruction," no? Think of it this way: What team would essentially surrender the first quarter of a football game, banking on the final three quarters?

Now, this is not to suggest that McKenzie’s job is on the line with this draft -- coach Dennis Allen's seat figures to get warmer first -- but he has a lot of work to do to re-establish trust from a leery fan base after a pair of 4-12 seasons. Even if owner Mark Davis knew how tough the first two years were going to be.

If the Raiders are to get a jump-start on Year 1 of their "reconstruction," it begins with their first pick in this draft.

So, yeah, if either Watkins or Mack is still on the board when the Raiders' turn comes up at No. 5, the choice is obvious -- it's whichever playmaker is there. Oakland has so many holes on defense, and with both McKenzie and Allen being defense-minded guys, Mack probably would be the call.

But if Mack is gone and Watkins is still there, the Raiders would be ecstatic with a game-changing receiver who would help make new quarterback Matt Schaub's transition smoother.

But what if both are gone in the first four picks?

That decision should be just as easy -- trade back; even if one of the top offensive tackles is still there, as they should be. Because while either Auburn's Greg Robinson (physical freak), Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews (product of a pro lineage) or Michigan’s Taylor Lewan (nasty disposition but with potential legal baggage) would add to the O-line mix to help deal with the departure of Jared Veldheer, McKenzie did enough to address the offensive line in free agency. At least for the immediate future.

Of course, trading back is easier said than done.

Consider: The Raiders are not all that interested in Johnny Manziel the football player. The ticket-selling circus? Maybe. But drafting Manziel at No. 5 would torpedo the Schaub move. While Oakland has gone all-in with the former Houston Texans Pro Bowler, the first time Schaub throws an interception, the fans would don their silver and black apparel, pitchforks and torches and march to the Coliseum for Johnny Football and Schaub, in need of a fresh start and renewed confidence, would be looking over his shoulder. The Raiders just endured that last season with the Matt Flynn-Terrelle Pryor-Matt McGloin-Tyler Wilson fiasco.

McKenzie and his staff may not have garnered a lot of trust in their QB evaluating abilities, but at least McKenzie’s vision is clear. He wants a veteran at quarterback and should draft another drama-free old soul who was a college winner in, say, the fourth round, because the Raiders are currently without picks in the fifth and sixth rounds to learn at the knee of Schaub. Not a polarizing rock star. So think Alabama's AJ McCarron. Or Pitt's Tom Savage. Or even San Jose State's David Fales. Unless Fresno State's Derek Carr is still there in the second round when the Raiders go at No. 36 overall, pending any trades, of course. Then all bets would be off.

Now, the Raiders can't trade that far back from No. 5, not if they still want an immediate difference-maker.

The Detroit Lions at No. 10 could be motivated to move up in front of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who draft seventh, in a race to get Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. And at 10, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald should still be on the board for the Raiders.

Then again, the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans might make a solid value pick for the Raiders as an Andre Johnson 2.0 for Schaub.

"It's," McKenzie said slowly last week, "a chess match."

For his sake, you just hope he's the one yelling, "checkmate."

Paul Gutierrez

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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