Raiders take McClain with eighth overall pick
ALAMEDA – The Oakland Raiders went into the NFL draft looking to bolster their run defense and upgrade the offensive line.
When the top two offensive tackles went off the board in the first six picks, the Raiders had an easy choice with the eighth selection Thursday night.
The Raiders drafted Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain, prizing production and a pedigree of winning over combine numbers.
“The guy made plays,” coach Tom Cable said. “He made plays against the run, he made plays against the pass. … But the thing that thrilled me the most is that he’s playing in arguably the best college football conference there is, and he’s able to go out there and direct it. The more you watch this guy, it was pretty easy to feel as a football coach that, man, he’s really got his hand on this thing. And, obviously, you can’t argue with the success they had as a football team.”
Cable said the Raiders targeted five players coming into the draft and figured that McClain would likely be the only one there. That’s just how the draft played out when defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy went second and third, and offensive tackles Trent Williams and Russell Okung went fourth and sixth.
McClain said he never visited the Raiders, but met with two assistants last week in Alabama. He didn’t expect to be picked by the Raiders and was playing poker with friends when he got the call that he was the choice.
“I was actually in a hand when I got the call,” McClain said. “I think I ended up losing the hand, but I think we had split the chips so we end up quitting. I think I’ll end up giving them all the money. I don’t think I’ll need it now.”
This marked just the third time since the start of the common draft in 1967 that Raiders owner Al Davis used a first-round pick on a linebacker. He took Rob Fredrickson 22nd overall in 1994 and Napoleon Harris 23rd in 2002.
McClain was part of Nick Saban’s first recruiting class at Alabama, spending three years learning under one of the game’s most respected defensive coaches. McClain was one of the key cogs in Saban’s rapid turnaround at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship last season.
Alabama ranked 46th in the nation in run defense before McClain arrived before improving to 28th his freshman year and second in his final two seasons. He won the Butkus Award as the top college linebacker, recording 105 tackles, including 14.5 for losses.
“He really came back to us as a coach on the field,” Cable said. “He was a guy that got everybody in watching film, got guys to go get a laptop and have the film guys put some film on your laptop, put a DVD in, watch it, study. He’s a guy that controlled the entire defense, made the call, adjusted, never came off the field. … You put a champion in the organization. I think that’s the important thing.”
Now the Raiders hope he can have the same type of impact on another storied team that has had recent struggles. Since going to the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, the Raiders have lost at least 11 games the past seven years. They are 29-83 in that span, the second-worst record in the NFL.
“I’m accustomed to winning,” McClain said. “I know these guys are just ready to get back to winning the way we used to win. I know the Raiders haven’t had a great season the past few years. But hey, everything is made to turn around. Everything happens for a reason. Coach Cable as well as myself and a lot of these other guys are going to turn this program around, and we’re going to get back to winning, get back to the playoffs, get back to having fun and playing good football.”
Stopping the run has been a common theme to Oakland’s struggles the past seven seasons. The Raiders have allowed an NFL-worst 143.7 yards rushing per game since then and 146 touchdowns on the ground – 15 more than the second-worst team, St. Louis. The Raiders finished 29th in run defense last season, allowing 155.5 yards per game.
The Raiders have already added outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, but McClain could make the biggest difference stepping right into the middle.
“He can’t do it by himself,” Cable said. “But we can all get better, which is what we have to do in this game. It’s a good piece to help you improve that run defense.”
McClain played mostly in a 3-4 defense at Alabama, but Cable believes he can easily transition into Oakland’s 4-3 scheme. His addition puts in doubt the future of middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, who led the team in tackles the past four seasons. Morrison recently signed his restricted free agent tender but could be traded during the final two days of the draft.
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