Raiders look to reverse first-round struggles
ALAMEDA – For three straight years, the Oakland Raiders used a top 10 pick to try to upgrade their offense with a skill position player.
Despite the additions of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, running back Darren McFadden and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey – or perhaps because of them – the Raiders were still the second lowest-scoring team in the NFL last season.
Because of those first-round mistakes and offensive struggles, the Raiders once again find themselves in the top 10 of the draft. If Oakland is going to reverse a record slide of seven straight seasons with at least 11 losses, hitting on this year’s top pick will be a vital part of that.
“It’s definitely important,” coach Tom Cable said. “That’s why they call them No. 1s.”
Since 1999, the only first-rounder the Raiders have taken who went on to make a Pro Bowl is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Out of the 13 first-rounders taken in that span, six are no longer with the team and three were out of the league last year.
That’s the biggest reason the Raiders have struggled so mightily since going to the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. And much of the blame falls on the last three first-round picks.
The trio combined for five touchdowns last season. Russell lost his starting job midway through the year and posted the worst passer rating in the NFL in 11 years, throwing three touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. He is competing with Bruce Gradkowski for the starting job this season.
McFadden has struggled with injuries his first two years and hasn’t been the game-breaker Oakland expected even when he has been healthy. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry last season and scored one touchdown.
Heyward-Bey had just nine catches and one touchdown in 11 games after being one of the most criticized picks a year ago. While Cable has said he has seen huge strides from Heyward-Bey this offseason, the proof won’t come until he performs in games.
Cable said the priority this year is finding players who were productive in college. That statement appears at odds with last year’s selection of Heyward-Bey, who didn’t come close to putting up numbers like those of Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin but was significantly faster in the 40-yard dash.
While Crabtree and Maclin easily outplayed Heyward-Bey as rookies, don’t expect the Raiders to completely abandon their infatuation with measurables like height, weight and speed.
“We want to be the fastest team in football,” Cable said. “I think that’s kind of always been the mantra, to be that elite speed team in football.”
It was the Raiders’ desire for speed that had many pointing to Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell as their pick as soon as he ran the 40-yard dash in an impressive 4.85 seconds, bench-pressed 225 pounds 34 times and measured 6-foot-7, 310 pounds at the NFL combine.
But Campbell’s production doesn’t match those numbers and he didn’t get a single vote for the all-ACC first team last season. That’s one reason he could possibly slip all the way to the second round if the Raiders don’t take him with the eighth pick.
“Bruce Campbell is a big risk and a great reward,” NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt said. “When you see him in person, it just makes you drool. … I think this is one of those players that can be either all-everything, or you wonder why we ever drafted him.”
There will likely be other offensive linemen to choose from, even if Trent Williams and Russell Okung are off the board when the Raiders pick. Bryan Bulaga, Anthony Davis, and Mike Iupati are also projected as first-rounders.
Cable said improving the offensive line is a big need for the Raiders. Left tackle Mario Henderson allowed the most sacks in the NFL last season with 10.5, and Oakland heads into the draft with Langston Walker, Khalif Barnes and Erik Pears fighting for the right tackle spot.
“There’s a good group of guys there, and if the right guy’s there for us, hopefully we can get him,” Cable said.
Then again, Cable said similar things last season when Oakland bypassed Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher to take Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick.
If the Raiders decide to pass on an offensive lineman with their first pick, there are plenty of other directions they could go. They could look to upgrade the pass rush with a defensive end like Derrick Morgan or Jason Pierre-Paul, add a run-stopping inside linebacker like Rolando McClain, upgrade the secondary with someone like Joe Haden or Earl Thomas, or give up on Russell by taking Jimmy Clausen as their new franchise quarterback.
Even experts who normally have a good pulse on what Raiders owner Al Davis will do in the draft are somewhat stumped this year.
“This is a hard one for me this year,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, “and I’ve gotten them right, I think, three years in a row.”
The Raiders need to make sure they get it right this time.
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