Does Reggie McKenzie struggle to draft defensive players?

The Oakland Raiders have focused their free agent attention on the offensive side of the wall with three offensive signings and only one reported visit from a defensive player. For many, this strategy has produced a lot of anziety due to the fact that it’s all but universally believed that it’s the defense, not the offense, that needs big upgrades.

I, for one, am not worried. In part due to the fact that this year’s draft class is seen to be one of the deepest defensive draft classes in years. But for some, that fact does not bring much comfort. Why? Because despite his success in turning one of the worst franchises in the NFL into a 12 win team and despite winning executive of the year, there are some fans who believe they know better.

Many of those fans point to the defense as proof that McKenzie is overrated. They argue that he has not had success on defense and therefore we can’t trust that he will draft quality defensive players this year. So let’s take a look at that idea and see whether McKenzie really has been bad as a defensive drafter.

EVERY DEFENSIVE PICK BY REGGIE MCKENZIE

2012 Draft

2013 Draft

2014 Draft

2015 Draft

2016 Draft

SETTING EXPECTATIONS

Before evaluating, we need to talk about HOW we will be evaluating. First thing’s first, I will not be talking about the 2016 draft class. One year is simply not enough to really make a good judgment on the players. But first glance makes it seem as though this class would’ve been a wash in this argument as so far, Joseph has been good, Ward and Calhoun have disappointed and James has played better than expected.

First, Second and Third Rounds

When looking at draft expectations, you can really only expect a difference maker in the first three rounds. And even that might be pushing it a bit. Third round picks are seen as valuable but it might be pushing it to say you can expect that pick to produce a difference maker. But because the first three rounds are seen as much more valuable, they will be graded on a more harsh curve.

Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh Rounds

Once you get bast the third round, expectations drop significantly. You can find quality players in these rounds but you can’t reasonably expect a general manager to hit on these picks with regularity. Typically, it’s not even assumed that sixth and seventh round picks will even make the roster.

So, with these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at every pick, round by round:

FIRST ROUND - HIGH EXPECTATIONS

D.J. Hayden - This was clearly a disappointment. Hayden was McKenzie’s first, first round pick and he’s now no longer a Raider after never living up to expectations. Sure, this past season he improved but even with that improvement he did not play like a first round pick is expected to.

But as always, things aren’t as simple as saying the pick was good or bad. The 2013 draft class was borderline pathetic and most of the top first round picks were deemed to be disappointments. Does that forgive the pick? No, but when most general managers picked bad players in the first round, that’s a bigger sign about the quality of the players than the quality of the decisions.

Grade: C -

Khalil Mack - This is one of the two best picks by McKenzie but of course, the expectations thing works both ways. You expect the Raiders to find a very good player when drafting in the top five picks. And the 2014 class was not like the 2013 class, there was plenty of talent available.

But McKenzie still had to make the right pick and there were many who doubter Khalil Mack due to coming from a small school. And any Raiders fan who has followed the team closely in the draft knows it’s no guarantee that top picks will work out. Even guys seen as sage picks like Robert Gallery, have the potential to fail. At the end of the day, McKenzie lived up to every expectation possible for such a high pick by taking a guy who is one of the best defensive players in the league. I don’t think it’s possible to have a better pick in the first round, high expectations and all.

Grade: A +

SECOND ROUND - HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Mario Edwards, Jr. - When the Raiders drafted Edwards, many fans were upset. They felt it was a reach to take him when he might be available in the third round. That thought process, however, was flawed since there were at least some rumors he could’ve been taken in the first round. That’s why I don’t care about “reaching.” Where a player is supposed to be taken is far from science and opinions often vary to a high degree.

Now, Raiders fans hope beyond hope that Edwards will be healthy this year because he is such a huge part of the defense. Despite not having seen the field much, Edwards has shown how insanely valuable he is. All you need to do is go back and watch the four game stretch in 2015 where Khalil Mack tallied 10 sacks. Watch the tape closely and you will see Edwards was a major reason why Mack was able to blow up. His crashing of the pocket prevented QBs from stepping up and away from Mack’s pressure.

Though he’s been injured a lot, that’s not something I consider when evaluating a draft pick unless there were red flags. If there are no red flags for injuries and the guy becomes injury prone, you can only blame the GM for the pick if you expect the GM to be psychic. GMs are talent evaluators not injury predictors. And on this pick, McKenzie judged the talent perfectly.

Grade: A

THIRD ROUND - HIGHER EXPECTATIONS

Sio Moore - Taken in the third round, Moore was a starter and fan favorite for the Raiders. Until Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton, Jr. decided they didn’t much care for Moore‘s attitude. Moore was a guy who did not play with very much discipline but whose athleticism allowed him to make a lot of plays. Eventually he was traded and is still seen as a guy who can compete for starting jobs who also adds value as a special teamer.

He didn’t work out for the Raiders but that’s likely the reason he was available in the third round despite many believing he had second round or higher talent. If anyone is every able to get him under control, he will make a nice starting linebacker in the NFL.

Grade: C+

FOURTH ROUND - EXPECT A ROLE PLAYER OR BETTER

Miles Burris - Burris was your prototypical high motor, low ceiling player. He didn’t have the physical tools to be a good NFL player but he worked so relentlessly, he was able to convince some he was worth a look. He actually started for a weak Raiders roster and played ok but it was clear he was destined to be upgraded over.

Now, Burris is out of the league and it does not look very likely he will make it back in.

Grade: D

Justin Ellis - Ellis is the prototype of what you should consider a good pick in the fourth round. He has a lot of talent and a lot of potential but can’t seem to play with enough consistency to lock down a starting role. That being said, he’s a nice rotational piece that will continue to be an active part of the Raiders in 2017.

Grade: B+

Keith McGill -McGill is a work in progress still. The Raiders have yet to give up hope on the big bodied defensive back, but they have also yet to figure out how to get the most out of him. He adds some value as a special teamer but really hasn’t shown a ton as a corner. That being said, he played fairly decently at safety when the Raiders tried him out there. He probably doesn’t have a very high ceiling but there’s still hope he can be a valuable depth piece.

Grade: C

FIFTH ROUND - LOWER EXPECTATIONS BUT TYPICALLY MAKE THE ROSTER

 Jack Crawford - Crawford made the team and was a backup for two years before the Raiders decided to move on. Crawford is still in the league and appears he will be for a while as a journeyman backup. That’s about what the minimal expectations you should have for a fifth round pick.

Grade: B+

Ben Heeney - While Heeney didn’t live up to the initial hype he received as a rookie, we need to remember why he received that hype. No, Heeney is not a starting caliber linebacker in the NFL, we learned that much in 2016. But he is still a high motor guy who makes good plays on occasion. Assuming he comes back from his injury, he’s a guy who could be depth for the Raiders for a while.

Grade: B+

Neiron Ball - Remember how I didn’t hole Mario Edwards. Jr.’s injuries against McKenzie? The same can’t be said of Ball who had injury red flags coming out of college. When he’s made it on the field, Ball has been very good. For a minute we all thought there was finally someone on the team capable of covering tight ends. Based on talent alone, this would be a great pick in the fifth round. But because he’s never available his value drops a lot.

Grade: C+

SIXTH ROUND - LOW EXPECTATIONS

Christo Bilukidi - I liked his potential coming out and teams liked his production enough for him to have stuck in the league until last season. He’s now a free agent after spending most of last season on the Washington practice squad. He is a guy who matches about the baseline of what you can reasonable expect from a sixth round pick.

Grade: B -

Stacy McGee - McGee just got paid big in free agency after dramatically out playing his draft value. McGee not only made the team, he became an important rotational piece. He’s even shown more than Justin Ellis, who was taken two rounds ahead of him. Plus, there’s still potential that he has not yet reached. McGee is probably one of the best value picks McKenzie has made.

Grade: A -

Max Valles - Valles is only barely hanging onto his spot in the league. After not making it with the Raiders, the Bills signed him and he remains with them on a reserve/future contract. He hasn’t been able to make it into an NFL game but the Bills clearly still think he has potential to be an NFL player. Not good and not bad for a 6th rounder.

Grade: B-

SEVENTH ROUND - VERY LOW EXPECTATIONS

Nathan Stupar - Stupar was drafted because of his special teams capabilities. Ultimately, those skills landed him with a 3 year, $5 million contract with the Saints this offseason. That’s a nice salary for a special teams guy and shows he is valued in the league. That’s good value in the seventh round.

Grade: B+

David Bass - Though he showed a lot of potential early, Bass never lived up to early flashes and is close to being out of the league. Definitely not an impressive pick but not a terrible on either since nearly every seventh round pick is a bit of a leap.

Grade: C 

T.J. Carrie - T.J. Carrie was drafted to be a kick returner but it didn’t take long to see he was a valuable addition to the secondary as well. Since his rookie season, Carrie has seen a decent number of starts and has been used both at safety and cornerback. He’s become a valuable talent who adds depth in the secondary and an option as a return man.

Grade: A -

Shelby Harris -Similar to David Bass, Harris is a guy who showed some flashes early but was never able to develop into anything more than that. He’s still in the league though only barely after having signed a reserve/future contract with the Broncos.

Grade: C 

Jonathan Dowling - A guy with some talent that the Raiders released due to maturity issues. Dowling might make a decent backup if he put his mind to it but he never offered much special teams value so its tough to justify more than practice squad spots.

Grade: C

Dexter McDonald - A special teamer and deep depth guy who the Raiders hope can improve into more usable depth. He’s not a hit for a seventh rounder but he’s also not a bad return for the late pick.

Grade: B

CONCLUSION

What you see is what you should reasonably expect to see from a good general manager. Some really good picks with some average and bad picks mixed in. If you take the time to look at the record for the best general managers in the league you will see that there is always a mixture if hits and misses. But the best GMs hit often enough with the important picks to keep a team competitive.

In the case of McKenzie, there have been only three defensive picks in the first two rounds (when you don’t include the 2016 class). Of those three picks, he had two very good picks and one pretty bad pick. He’s also had a few very good late round picks with T.J. Carrie and Stacy McGee and an above average mid round picks like Justin Ellis.

It’s not an overly impressive record for McKenzie on defensive picks but it’s also not a record that should give you concern that McKenzie is not able to draft quality players on defense.

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