Hunter Renfrow

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

The Raiders took their entire football operation down south this time last year to coach the Senior Bowl’s North squad.

That’s a luxury afforded to terrible teams from the NFL season that just concluded, and the 4-12 Raiders certainly were one. The provided an up-close look at some of the NFL draft’s finest prospects available throughout the selection process.

The Raiders got to see how players work in practice and pay attention in meetings, with an opportunity to swap squads – the 49ers coached the South – on the practice week’s final day.

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock got a great evaluation of every Senior Bowl prospect.

That week in Mobile, Ala., turned out to be an information gold mine. They learned to love a lot of those prospects and capitalized on opportunities to acquire them in the NFL draft or shortly after.

The Raiders drafted four Senior Bowl participants and signed three more after the amateur selection process.

“Coaching and being there really helped us a lot,” general manager Mike Mayock said after the NFL draft. “It really is a big deal to be involved in that game.”

The Raiders certainly hope this Senior Bowl week bears fruit, albeit with a lot less access to the prospects. They’ll send a slightly smaller contingent to this important evaluation week, though the Silver and Black still will canvas this group from stands over the sidelines. Practices start Tuesday, beginning a three-day stretch that’s more important than the All-Star Game itself.

Last year’s close-up look ended up putting several participants in silver and black.

The Raiders got Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram in the first round, LSU tight end Foster Moreau and Houston cornerback Isaiah Johnson in the fourth and Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow in the fifth. Then, they signed Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold, Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney and UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss as undrafted free agents.

Everyone save Coney spent most of the year on the 53-man roster and many of them made a major impact on the 2019 Raiders.

Those guys should be an even greater part of the 2020 squad, with Abram expected to rejoin the starting lineup after he underwent season-ending shoulder after Week 1, and optimism is high after what was essentially a lost season for Johnson after he suffered a preseason facial fracture.

Renfrow developed into a major player, and even Ingold became a reliable blocker and short-yardage back. Moreau was a touchdown machine in his first season, forming a promising tight-end duo with breakout star Darren Waller.

The Raiders preferred Senior Bowl participants last year, and this practice week is something vital to pre-NFL draft evaluation. The Raiders have five selections in the top 92, broken down into two first-round picks and three more in the third down.

[RELATED: Raiders' Gruden, Mayock at East-West Shrine Bowl practice]

Last year the Raiders favored players from either championship college programs or Senior Bowl participants, with rare exceptions. There’s no telling if that’ll be the case again this year, but Senior Bowl game and practice film is a vital piece of the evaluation process.

“Everybody will tell you they look at the Senior Bowl practice tape, the Senior Bowl game film over and over and over,” Gruden said last year. “You watch the matchups over and over and over.

“I remember doing it with [late Raiders owner/GM Al Davis]. He would put the Senior Bowl on for the 44th time and I would say, ‘how many more times are we going to watch that game?’ There’s tremendous value in it. It’s a great tool and provides great matchups you would never see if you didn’t come here.”

Outstanding Raiders NFL draft class lays foundation for bright future

Outstanding Raiders NFL draft class lays foundation for bright future

The Raiders' 2014 NFL draft class was stacked. Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, Justin Ellis and even T.J. Carrie became Raiders in a three-day span that changed the Silver and Black's fortunes.

It took time, but that group bonded together and eventually lead a roster rebuild that sent the Raiders to the playoffs with a 12-4 record.

That success was not sustained due to misses in subsequent drafts.

Jon Gruden dismantled then-general manager Reggie McKenzie’s roster, shipped stars off for draft picks and set off on another rebuild that would only work by hitting home runs on draft day.

Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock sent one pick after another over the fence. The 2019 Raiders draft class made a massive impact this season, with huge hits from players regardless of round. They’ve also grown close and believe they’re on a path toward sustained success after a 7-9 campaign reliant on young players filling huge roles.

“I think we have a great foundation here,” fifth-round receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “The rookie class has bonded well over the course of the year. All my years playing football at different levels, we’ve gone through a year with close losses. The next year, we feel like we can get there and we come through with a great year.

"As we transition to Las Vegas, I believe we’re going to do something special.”

The crazy thing: The Raiders draft class was awesome despite depressed returns from its three first-round picks. Josh Jacobs obviously was awesome and should be voted Offensive Rookie of the Year. Clelin Ferrell showed improvement but lacked the wow-factor expected from a top-5 pick. Johnathan Abram was lost for the year in Week 1.

Second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen and fourth-round defensive end Maxx Crosby were full-time starters. Renfrow ended up the team’s best receiver. Fourth-round tight end Foster Moreau proved a versatile talent and clutch red-zone threat.

Only fourth-round cornerback Isaiah Johnson didn’t play much due to a facial fracture that hindered his progress. Seventh-round edge rusher Quinton Bell didn’t last long, but late picks always are a crapshoot.

This group is high-character and damn good at football, points proven during this season.

“We have a bunch of young guys who are talented, and not just one or two,” Renfrow said. “I think they’re made of the right stuff. … Everyone has played through injuries and everyone has just wanted to win. I think that’s what you have to have -- that grit and determination to be a good team. I’m excited about who we have and the veterans here to carry us alone.”

The Raiders drafted players largely from high-profile, winning programs and they seemed comfortable competing at this level.

“As a team, we really showed that we’re going to be a presence in this league for many years to come,” Ferrell said. “I feel like we showed, through the draft and the guys we brought in, that we’re becoming a strong team. We have something special going here. I’m excited for the offseason and I’m excited for next year.”

[RELATED: How Tua's NFL draft decision could impact Raiders' plans]

The Raiders need more talent to ascend in 2020. That means Gruden and Mayock have to strike gold again, especially with two first-round picks and three in the third round.

“We have some resources like you say in the draft and we think the Raiders, the Raiders is a great brand for any player to want to play for,” Gruden said. “And we can’t wait to continue building our team and I know Mayock and his group of guys are excited as well.”

Raiders to 'strengthen' wide receiver group after collapse this season

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USATSI

Raiders to 'strengthen' wide receiver group after collapse this season

ALAMEDA – Wide receiver might’ve been the Raiders’ greatest team strength entering the 2019 campaign.

They had an elite No. 1 in Antonio Brown, a dynamic and steady producer set to be the offensive centerpiece. They had Tyrell Williams as a big-bodied No. 2 who was a faster-than-you-think deep threat. Ryan Grant was established as a quality No. 3, with Hunter Renfrow as a rookie slot receiver looking to make an instant impact. J.J. Nelson had sprinter’s speed and was pushing for a bigger role in training camp

Quarterback Derek Carr was excited to work with that deep and talented group. It fell apart before the season even started. Before long, Carr was throwing to receivers he had just met.

The position group imploded, thanks in massive part to Brown. The volatile, self-centered receiver put the team that traded for him through the wringer, with one problem after another until he was eventually cut without earning a dime of his three-year, $50 million contract extension.

That transaction alone downgraded the Raiders' receiver group from an "A" to a "C." Then Tyrell Williams sustained foot injuries in Week 2 that he battled all season. Then Grant proved ineffective and got cut. Nelson was rarely available and got cut, too.

The Raiders were left to piece the position group together in-season with low-grade trades. Williams never got completely right, with his plantar fasciitis hindering his effectiveness. This group suffered from all that turnover and a key injury, so it’s no surprise the Raiders need a positional overhaul heading into this offseason.

“We still have some young guys that are still somewhat unproven,” coach Jon Gruden said Monday, “but we’ll be looking to strengthen that group, yes.”

Renfrow’s the only carryover locked into the lineup. The fifth-round draft pick developed into an excellent slot receiver impactful on important downs working the middle of the field. He’s a bigger down-field threat than you’d expect for someone of his size, with the potential to be an impactful player for a long time.

“We asked him to do a lot in the last few weeks and he delivered,” Gruden said. “He ran some routes [last week against the Denver Broncos] that were outstanding, but to answer your question, I just think he’s earned that status. When you practice the way he practices and you do the things that he does, you can’t help but try and feature him a little bit more and more.”

The Raiders burned a 2020 sixth-round pick on Trevor Davis who was acquired from the Green Bay Packers and cut before season’s end. They used a 2021 fifth-round pick on Zay Jones, who had zero chemistry with Carr and didn’t do much while playing a lot. He had a year left on his rookie deal, but the jury’s out on whether he’ll make next year’s roster.

Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have a tough decision ahead with Williams. He signed a four-year, $44 million deal last offseason that’s essentially pay-as-you-go, meaning they can break free from it this year without dead money attached.

The Raiders could offer than money to another veteran or stick with Williams believing better’s ahead when he’s healthy. Williams hadn’t missed an NFL game before this season and has been a 1,000-yard receiver when given the chance, with a track record as a good No. 2 throughout his career.

“We have to go back and I watch him in training camp and Week 1 when he was healthy against Denver, and he’s a talented guy,” Gruden said. “But it’s hard to play when your feet are on fire and his feet were hurting bad. It’s a credit to him to play through it, but we need to get him healthy. We got to get his situation resolved, that was a lengthy discussion we had [in a Monday exit interview]. But we think he’s an excellent football player, he’s just got to get right.”

The Raiders need additions even if Williams remains.

It seems likely and logical the Raiders use one of two first-round draft picks on a receiver. This draft class is loaded at the position, with the prospect of landing another good one with one of three third-round picks.

[RELATED: Clelin Ferrell vows to return to Raiders 'completely different player']

The Raiders could cut Williams and use money earmarked for him on someone else, though the receiver free-agent class looks only so-so. New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson’s an intriguing talent. Gruden has used older receivers to great effect before, with A.J. Green and Emmanuel Sanders set to hit the market.

Is that better than keeping Williams, who will be 28 next year, and surrounding his even temperament and quiet leadership with talented young players from the draft?

There’s no doubt the Raiders will address the position group at several points this offseason as they try to help a productive run game and make this offense deeper and steadily dynamic.

“Yup,” Gruden said. “We are going to have to take a good look at it.”