McKenzie: Osemele gave Raiders OL teeth, Nelson eased Woodson's loss

McKenzie: Osemele gave Raiders OL teeth, Nelson eased Woodson's loss

Raiders general manager built a foundation of talent heading into the 2016 offseason, but needed more to get his team over the hump. Draft picks were essential, and expected. He had significant salary cap space, where he could find some immediate impact players on the open market.

McKenzie signed six unrestricted free agents, a few of them at a hefty price. Most veteran imports worked out well, though some thrived more than others.

It was a solid group that, in addition to the 2017 draft class and some key undrafted pickups, helped McKenzie win the Pro Football Writers of America’s executive of the year award.

He singled out two members of the 2016 free-agent class that helped set the tone for a 12-4 regular season and the team’s first playoff berth since 2002.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele was the first. The former Baltimore Raven signed a record contract for interior linemen but was worth the price, adding attitude to the offensive line during an All-Pro season.

“I think Kelechi solidified our offensive line, from the standpoint of what we wanted from our run game, from a physicality standpoint, what we had always talked about from Day 1,” McKenzie said Thursday in a conference call. “He added to that and he put some teeth into the whole offensive mentality. I felt like that was an impact. I was happy to see him get his first Pro Bowl. That was good to see.”

McKenzie also highlighted free safety Reggie Nelson’s efforts. He signed late in the offseason for relatively cheap, but was voted a team captain after his first preseason as a Raider and helped the secondary function with confidence. That was required after losing the eminent Charles Woodson to retirement.

Nelson also had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries, including three takeaways that secured victory.

I thought Reggie [Nelson] made some plays and was a true leader back there. When we lost Charles Woodson, from the leadership standpoint, communication standpoint, I felt Reggie came in and did a solid job to help ease that transition. You can never replace a Charles Woodson, but he was able to help ease that transition, especially when we had a young rookie back there (in Karl Joseph).”

Let’s take a look at the Raiders unrestricted free agent class and how they fared:

LG Kelechi Osemele
Contract: 5 years, $58.5 million ($25.4 million guaranteed)
Impact:Osemele ranks among the league’s elite left guards, and brought a nastiness to the Raiders offensive line. He helped immensely in the run game, and didn’t allow a quarterback sack all season. He was a Pro Bowler and a first-team All Pro, the results McKenzie hoped for after offering Osemele a massive contract.

LB Bruce Irvin
Contract: 4 years, $37 million ($14.5 million guaranteed)
Impact: Irvin started slow but rounded into a dominant player and an excellent compliment to star edge rusher Khalil Mack. Irvin had seven sacks and an NFL-high six forced fumbles, showing enough versatility to play well in coverage and against the run.

CB Sean Smith
Contract: 4 years, $38 million ($15 million guaranteed)
Impact: Smith was benched in his first game, and struggled against Julio Jones in his second, but played better after than and largely well the rest of the year. His quarterback rating against was 114.0 and he allowed too many big plays. More is expected from a No. 1 cornerback. Smith had shoulder surgery after the season and vowed to be better in 2017.

FS Reggie Nelson
Contract: 2 years, $8.5 million ($4 million guaranteed)
Impact:Nelson wasn’t perfect in his first year as a Raider, but made some big plays during a Pro Bowl year. He had seven takeaways, including five interceptions, and some big hits in the clutch. He was a solid leader in the back who should be better with a year’s experience in a new system to his credit.

S Bryden Trawick
Contract: 1 year,  $675,000
Impact: Trawick was brought in to be a solid special teams player, and he thrived in that role. He was strong in kick and punt coverage, with a team-high 14 special teams tackles. He showed some defensive prowess late when forced into action, and the safety made some nice plays over the last two games.

LB Daren Bates
Contract: 1 year, $850,000
Impact: Bates is a special teams player first and, along with Trawick, helped anchor the coverage units. He had seven special teams tackles over the year.

McKenzie still not over Raiders playoff loss, striving 'to hold up the trophy'

McKenzie still not over Raiders playoff loss, striving 'to hold up the trophy'

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie acknowledged being named the NFL’s executive of the year was a big deal. It’s the highest individual honor bestowed on a personnel man.

Not in McKenzie’s eyes. His name’s on the plaque, but the general manger considers it a team honor. It takes a village to raise a roster, something McKenzie knows after working through the ranks.

“The acknowledgement, to me, is for the organization, from the top down,” McKenzie said. “From the patience and the vision together with me and (owner Mark Davis) on through the work, the daily work of the coaches and players and to play on Sunday. That’s what the acknowledgement is really all about.

“You see the entire organization working together to win. That’s what I see. It’s an accomplishment from the standpoint that we’re winning now. That’s what I feel good about. That’s why this award is special. It’s a team award, but it’s special to me that this thing is resulting into wins.”

The Raiders went 12-4 in 2016 and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season. That postseason experience was not positive. The Raiders got waxed in Houston, completing a brutal two-loss stretch where an AFC West title was lost and the season formally ended.

The downward spiral started in Week 16, after quarterback Derek Carr broke his fibula. Backup Matt McGloin played poorly and then hurt his shoulder the next game, which forced the Raiders to start rookie Connor Cook against Houston.

A loss seemed likely – Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn was also sidelined – but that didn’t make it easier for McKenzie to handle.

“Well, I’m still getting over it, (likely) until I win my next game,” McKenzie said. “It’s tough anytime you lose your last game. It’s going to eat at you and that’s one thing about being a player, being associated in this, it’s the drive for the next game. What can I do to help us win that next game? And that’s the hope we have now, is the opportunity to play again, you know? Albeit, in ’17, but that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to set the course for this ’17 season. So, it’s going to eat at you until then.”

It’s that drive that pushed McKenzie during difficult times, when talent piled up but didn’t translate to wins. Seeing the fruits of that labor is incredibly gratifying for McKenzie and staff. This award is part of that – to the victor go the spoils – though the end goal remains out of reach and will until the Raiders win a Super Bowl.

“Nobody likes losing, so I get that. If you really believe in what you’re doing and you’re supported, the hope is to start to win games, and to get to the playoffs is a step,” McKenzie said. “We feel good about that, but we’re only scratching the surface. We still want to hold up the trophy. That’s what we’re going to continue to strive to do. That’s our next step. We need to win playoff games.”

PFWA names Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie Executive of the Year

PFWA names Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie Executive of the Year

Raiders owner/general manager Al Davis was named the NFL’s executive of the year after the 2002 season. The Raiders reached the Super Bowl that year, and fell off a cliff after that.

It was appropriate to honor the man that brought the Raiders to great heights then, and it’s right to award the general manager who helped bring them back to prominence.

That occurred on Thursday morning, when Reggie McKenzie was named 2016’s NFL Executive of the Year. That honor’s bestowed by the Pro Football Writers of America, based upon a vote of the association’s membership.

McKenzie helped provide the personnel required to go 12-4 in 2016 and secure their first playoff berth since Davis was in charge.

McKenzie imported key free agents in Pro Bowlers Reggie Nelson, Kelechi Osemele and edge rusher Bruce Irvin. He drafted starting safety Karl Joseph in the first round, and added solid undrafted products in Jalen Richard and Darius Latham. He had seven undrafted free agents on the roster at 2016’s end.

He also found linebacker stability by signing Perry Riley in Week 5.

While this is an award given specifically for work in a particular season, it’s impossible to ignore McKenzie’s excellent drafts in 2014 and 2015, when he added Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Gabe Jackson and Mario Edwards Jr. There were previous free agent adds like Michael Crabtree, Donald Penn and Rodney Hudson.

Several Raiders have been honored by the PFWA. Mack and Osemele were on the All-NFL team, and Joseph was on the All-Rookie team.

In addition to McKenzie, the PFWA named Dallas’ Jason Garrett the league’s coach of the year and Atlanta’s Kyle Shannahan the assistant coach of the year on Thursday.