Jon Gruden's fingerprints all over Raiders' draft class

Jon Gruden's fingerprints all over Raiders' draft class

General manager Reggie McKenzie’s personnel department started grinding on the 2018 NFL Draft almost a year before this week's amateur selection, putting evaluations on draft-worthy prospects, with cross checks and in-person visits and background investigations.

Jon Gruden and his assistants got involved when coaches normally do, in weeks before the combine. Coaches knew exactly what they were looking for, and weren’t shy identifying proper fits for new schemes.

That isn’t new. The guy ultimately making decisions certainly was. After years with McKenzie as the triggerman, Gruden had final say on these picks, just as he did signing free agents. A 10-year, $100 million contract, after all, provides significant pull. 

Head coach and GM are tired of process stories centered on their working relationship, but this new dynamic had a profound impact on Raiders draft picks.

Gruden’s fingerprints were all over nine selections during this three-day draft, and he brought a new dynamic to the draft room. NFL Network’s Mike Silver said Thursday morning Gruden wanted to run the draft in “real time,” using the team's research to make decisions in the moment more than is typical. That evoked some spirited debate in the draft room, especially before Thursday’s selection of offensive tackle Kolton Miller.

Gruden and McKenzie were extremely active during the draft, executing seven trades involving draft picks – one reaped veteran Pittsburgh receiver Martavis Bryant -- and completed another sending Jihad Ward to Dallas on Saturday night.

Gruden was aggressive making picks, unafraid to choose guys with character flaws (DE Arden Key, LB Azeem Victor), health issues (DT Maurice Hurst, CB Nick Nelson) or players from smaller schools (OT Brandon Parker, DT PJ Hall). Al Davis' influence could be seen in most selections, which makes sense considering how much Gruden learned from the late Raiders owner.

He lived on the edge at times, willing to take risks for great upside. McKenzie worked the system right alongside him during this important three-day stretch. At times, Gruden admits, McKenzie's patience and easy-going outlook is a virtue.

“At the beginning, I thought Reggie did a good job and I thought we work well together,” Gruden said after Friday’s second and third rounds, the last time he spoke with the media during the draft. “There were some tense moments. It’s not easy working with me. I’ll be honest. I’m a pain in the ass up there.”

Gruden got guys he wants to work with, and was complimentary of McKenzie’s efforts during the entire draft process. The general manager’s role is different with Gruden in town, but he was proud of how the Raiders draft was run.

“It was fun,” McKenzie said. “The one thing that this staff has, they have a vision. They know exactly what they want, what they need and what will help them be successful. They communicated really well. I thought it was really good the way the scouts and coaches interacted, myself and Gruden included.”

Some Raiders scouts aren't expected back for the next go round. The draft cycle has ended, making now the typical time to make changes to the personnel department. There was significant talk after Gruden got hired that he would bring in trusted evaluators of his own.

Sporting News’ Alex Marvez reported Sunday morning that changes are coming soon, with director of player personnel Joey Clinkscales possibly moving on. McKenzie's right-hand man would likely be replaced with someone Gruden knows well, giving the coach further influence in the day-to-day pro and college scouting process.

McKenzie’s contract runs through the 2021 draft—don’t forget that he turned down an opportunity to interview for Green Bay’s GM job in January -- and could be a valuable asset in Gruden’s regime. Head coach and general manager have liked working together thus far, and have been complimentary of one another in public. If this draft class performs well, and Gruden liked the process and the information he was given, they could partner for an extended stretch. Ultimately, however, time will tell on that front. Right now, however, some shake-up is expected. 

Raiders backup QBs don't inspire confidence in preseason loss to Rams


Raiders backup QBs don't inspire confidence in preseason loss to Rams

LOS ANGELES – The Raiders got a glimpse of life without Derek Carr on Saturday.

It wasn’t pretty.

Oakland's starting quarterback was a healthy scratch, and backups Connor Cook and EJ Manuel struggled most of the time in a 19-15 preseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Both made some positive plays, but each one lost a fumble in Raiders territory, missed some throws, and failed to consistently move the football.

The first half was atrocious, with one first down in seven series. Each quarterback played six series in this one, and didn’t get much help. The offensive line was porous – it allowed four sacks – and receivers dropped some passes, but the quarterbacks weren’t on target like they should be.

They surely didn’t live up to Jon Gruden’s standard for quarterback play.

“I thought EJ did some good things. I thought Connor did a couple good things,” Gruden said. “But … you know, fumbling the snap in the two-minute drill, turning the football over - those are things you can’t do as a backup quarterback. You got to come in and prove you can play mistake-free football in the short-term. And so far we have, I think, fumbled two snaps in two weeks inside the 5(-yard line), and it troubles me greatly. But we’ll look at the film and see. I mean, a lot of backup linemen, backup receivers, and backup running backs - and when you have a backup quarterback that hasn’t had all the work either it’s a very tough day at the office.”

Playing backup quarterback can be tough. They are generally thrust into adverse situations without getting much time to prepare. Carr takes most every practice snap during the regular season, so the reserve(s) don’t have much opportunity to develop or get physically involved in the game plan. That puts strain on those guys, but Gruden doesn’t want to miss a beat with a backup quarterback in the game.

There’s a wide chasm between Carr and the others, and the Raiders must figure out who will be his primary reserve for the regular season. Cook and Manuel didn’t separate themselves after subpar showings.

Cook has been the No. 2 in training camp. He played well in the exhibition opener against Detroit, but followed that with an uneven practice week and a lackluster showing against the Rams where he wasn’t able to establish an offensive rhythm.

“It’s our job to get into a rhythm,” Cook said. “You can’t make excuses, you can’t do anything like that. It’s our job to get the guys going, to set the tone in the huddle, and to get the offense into a groove. It’s our job to do that.”

Manuel hasn’t been as good this preseason as his last, when he easily won the backup job. The former first-round pick has a cannon arm and can be effective upon finding good rhythm, but that hasn’t happened much lately. He has struggled with ball security in practice and games, a new and unsettling trend for him this summer.

“We can be much better,” Manuel said. “I know on my part I need to have better ball security, getting around the pocket. Had to get relaxed with ball in my left hand and it slipped out, obviously don’t want to turn the ball over -- especially being down in their territory. There was just some throws, but you know that’s what happens in games. Besides that, I would just say I know things can be better I know I can be better."

Cook is younger and could be developed by a coaching staff well known for fostering talent. Moving up from the No. 3 spot, where he has been the last two seasons, would help achieve that goal.

The Raiders hope Cook and Manuel don’t play a lick this regular season. But Carr has gotten hurt each of the last two years, so having a quality reserve is essential.

Gruden must choose one – or acquire another – over the next few weeks. Carr should play extensive snaps in next week’s exhibition against Green Bay, so Saturday was a golden opportunity to step up in a competitive position battle. Neither guy took a leap forward on a lackluster Saturday in Los Angeles.

Three things you need to know from Raiders' 19-15 loss to Rams


Three things you need to know from Raiders' 19-15 loss to Rams

LOS ANGELES – With a 19-15 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday, the Oakland Raiders dropped to 1-1 in Jon Gruden's first preseason back with the Silver and Black. 

Here are three things you need to know from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum...

1. Progress hindered by preseason opponent

Jon Gruden wasn’t thrilled having to play the Rams in the preseason’s second game and again three weeks later when it actually matters. Starters typically play into the second quarter of this exhibition, expanding workloads from the previous week.

The Raiders went in reverse on Saturday, sitting 21 healthy players in this game to prevent the Rams from seeing too much of their personnel, play calls or hand signals. There’s no reason to help the opposition prepare to play you. The Rams took a similar tact. Both teams stripped schemes to the suds for this one, keeping exotic blitzes, pre-snap shifts and even their terminology away from prying eyes.

The Raiders will take less from this preseason game than usual, forced instead to focus on evaluating younger players.

"I’ve never been in a preseason game like this,” Gruden said. “I don’t know in the history of the NFL, if that’s ever happened. I’m not going to sit up here and cry about it because it’s the same for them as it is for us.

“But in our first year of operation (as a coaching staff), we didn’t want to play our starters. We didn’t want them to hear our audibles and see our hand signals. I don’t think they wanted us to get a feel for them either. It was a strange week of practice and a strange ballgame in that regard.”

2. Offensive line depth a concern

The Raiders have a solid starting offensive line. Center Rodney Hudson plus guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson make up arguably the NFL’s best offensive interior. Kolton Miller and Donald Penn have the ability to be a strong tackle tandem if Penn can successfully transition to the right side.

None of those guys played Saturday. Their reserves, however, didn’t show well.

Jon Feliciano is a quality player but had a bad day at the office. He had a bad snap to start the game, and was called for a false start inside the Rams’ 20-yard line. Raiders blockers were called for holding four times – one was declined – and a false start.

Brandon Parker was pushed straight back into Connor Cook got sacked when he fumbled in the first half.

It wasn’t a great day for the guys up front, and those who played Saturday and make the roster must show better when called upon. Feliciano has been a quality reserve, and there’s confidence he will be again. Parker and David Sharpe must improve on the outside. Ian Silberman is a versatile backup, and could leapfrog the other two tackles.

3. L.A. still a Raiders town

The Raiders curated a rabid, devoted fan base during their 13 years in Los Angeles, so it was no surprise their supporters turned out en masse for Saturday’s preseason game against the Rams.

After all, they hadn’t returned to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since returning to Oakland after the 1994 season.

The crowd was mostly black and silver, routinely booing Rams players and successes. They stayed engaged in a game that meant nothing, wasn’t terribly well played and manned by guys down the depth chart.

They didn’t seem to care. This was Raiders football, live on stage.

“It’s awesome being back here,” Gruden said. “The Raiders have a championship history in Los Angeles. There were a lot of fans here who remember those teams, and rightfully so. We appreciate their support and, hopefully, in a few weeks (when they play the Rams to open the regular season) we can give them a better game.”