Is there any executive in professional sports more beloved and despised than Reggie McKenzie? Despite turning the Oakland Raiders around and winning the Executive of the Year award last season, there are still those that are still very critical of the Raiders general manager. Here’s an argument for the executive, breaking down what he accomplished this off-season.
Alright. Let’s ask the hard questions. How do you guys feel about Reggie McKenzie? #RaiderNation
— LWOS Raiders (@LWOS_Raiders) May 2, 2017
The Method to Reggie McKenzie’s Madness
This is one area where his detractors were very vocal. Unlike last off-season, Reggie McKenzie was very quiet in free agency this year. Many fans believed he would bring in the likes of Tony Jefferson, Dontari Poe, and Zach Brown, but he didn’t. Instead, he remained mostly silent during the free agent period, resisting the urge to make a splash.
When free agency began to die down, McKenzie had only signed Jelani Jenkins, EJ Manuel, Jared Cook, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Marshall Newhouse. Not exactly what Madden-players had in mind. Of course, none of these signings were without reason. But more on that in a moment.
Their biggest off-season acquisition was Marshawn Lynch, the star running back they lured out of retirement. Known affectionately as “Beast Mode”, Lynch is a bruising back, and will fill the role left behind by Latavius Murray.
The Raiders couldn’t afford to make a big splash in free agency this year. They had some cap space, but available cap space is not a yearly allowance, it’s more like a saving’s account. And considering that the Raiders have to re-sign Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, and Gabe Jackson over the next year and a half, they couldn’t afford to blow a bunch of money.
The McKritics weren’t done just yet however, as the draft happened as well. Many assumed that the Oakland Raiders would take an inside linebacker in the first round, but they didn’t even touch the position until Marquel Lee in the fifth round.
The Oakland Raiders selected corner Gareon Conley, safety Obi Melifonwu, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, offensive lineman David Sharpe, Lee, and went on a seventh round run, taking Shalom Luani, Jylan Ware, Elijah Hood, and Treyvon Hester. In total, they added nine players in the draft.
McKenzie’s critics were devastated that he passed on linebacker Zach Cunningham twice (not three times), choosing instead to draft defensive backs. Fans believed that McKenzie ignored needs, and took some chances on players.
Now it’s time to break down the method to Reggie McKenzie’s madness.
What does Cordarrelle Patterson bring to the table? He’s not an incredible wide receiver, and he probably won’t even beat out Seth Roberts for the third receiver spot. But do you know what he does well? He’s arguably the NFL’s most consistent kick returner.
By adding Patterson, the Raiders add a part-time offensive weapon, but a consistent kick returner. With Patterson returning kicks, the Oakland Raiders are almost promised better field position with each drive.
Last season, the Raiders had the smallest percentage of drives started inside their 20. Patterson’s 31.68 yards per return led the league. When you put these two things together, Derek Carr isn’t going to spend a ton of time in his own redzone. But that’s not all.
Better starting field position doesn’t just help the offense. Unfortunately, not every drive ends in points, and sometimes, the Raiders need to punt. Fortunately, Oakland has one of the NFL’s best punters in Marquette King. King trailed only Pat McAfee in yards per punt last year.
So do the math. The distance between the start of the drive and the endzone gets shorter for the Raiders and longer for everyone else. Which leads to the next subject.
The Best Defense…
The best defense is a good offense. The other offense can’t score on Oakland if they’re not on the field. If the Oakland Raiders have long, punishing drives that end in points, they’re not going to lose many games. Enter Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook.
Despite taking last year off, Marshawn Lynch still leads the league in broken tackles over the last three seasons. He’s a bruising, physical back, and even if he’s lost a step, he’s probably still good for a couple yards and a cloud of dust. Behind Oakland’s offensive line? Even more so.
Murray averaged four yards per carry last season behind Oakland’s line. If Lynch can duplicate that, it’ll mean good things for the Raiders. If Beast Mode can get three or four yards on the same first down runs that saw Murray get stuffed, it works wonders.
It’s simple math. A shorter second down means a shorter third down. And obviously, those shorter third downs are easier to convert for Carr and the Raiders. The Raiders were 17th in converting third downs last year, and a physical run game could help improve that number.
As for Jared Cook, his job is very simple. Clive Walford is still developing as Carr’s stud tight end, but he needs someone reliable. Cook is amazingly athletic, and he’ll give Carr another option on third down. With Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and the threat of Lynch, who in the world will cover Cook?
This is where Oakland’s draft comes in. The Raiders focused on adding, but not redefining their defense. Khalil Mack is still the star of the show, but the secondary just got a lot faster. Melifonwu and Conley are big, athletic defensive backs that can come in and help right away. The Raiders have struggled with tight ends, and Melifonwu’s unique size and athleticism make him a key match-up piece.
As for Vanderdoes and Lee, they help bring some muscle to the front seven. Lee has a real chance at becoming Oakland’s starter, and while he’s not an amazing backer in coverage, his downhill instincts are incredible. The Raiders added athleticism in the secondary to handle tight ends and muscle up front to help Mack and stuff the run.
The Last Word
The Raiders struggled on third down offensively, and stopping the run and tight ends defensively. This off-season, they got a physical tailback, an amazing kick returner, and a ton of upgrades on defense. They added depth on the front seven for the run and more defensive backs than they can field to help the pass defense. Everyone in Oakland’s secondary was taken in the first or second round, and McKenzie is relying on that pedigree to make the Raiders Super contenders this season.