Raiders' draft must balance short-term goals, long-term vision

Raiders' draft must balance short-term goals, long-term vision
April 25, 2014, 1:00 pm
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The Raiders have seven picks in this year's draft, starting with the No. 5 overall selection. (USATSI)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories focused on the Raiders’ trek toward a pivotal 2014 NFL Draft (May 8-10). We'll have content every day, including position breakdowns, retrospectives, mock drafts, comments from general manager Reggie McKenzie and more. Bookmark our Road to the NFL Draft and set your DVRs for April 29, when the Raiders 2014 Draft Special debuts on CSN California at 8:30pm.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie took a large bite out of free agency this offseason. Such a helping will seem uncharacteristic in time, because McKenzie is a draft-first GM to the core.

This season’s free-agent splurge was a necessary tactic, designed to fill copious needs and spend the salary-cap space he sacrificed so much to achieve. There is a floor, you know. The Raiders are finally right with the cap, and never went wrong this offseason.

Most contracts were front-loaded and then pay-as-you-go deals. Most are one or two seasons, just enough time for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 draft classes to establish a traditional foundation for long-term success.

“Yes, that’s the plan,” McKenzie said last month.

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He wants to build through the draft and supplement lightly through free agency, a system that works. There is one rather obvious requirement: He must draft extremely well.

McKenzie must mine gold from this draft, and not the novelty specks you’ll pan in Old Town Sacramento. He needs nuggets.

Head coach Dennis Allen needs another talent infusion to show progress in the win column. And, as unfair as it often is to expect rookies to make an immediate impact, McKenzie needs to draft a few of them.

That’s because 2014 is being set up as a make-or-break year for the McKenzie-Allen regime. Please don’t take that as playoffs or bust. Nobody’s made a “win ‘X’ games or you’re fired" decree. Most everyone with a nice office in Alameda agrees that 4-12 is unacceptable, and that the Raiders must make a tangible step forward from that.

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It will be interesting to see whether the win-more-now mindset alters McKenzie’s draft. Will the Raiders shy away from higher-ceiling prospects who require some seasoning? Will glaring need win out when the clock's winding down and a better player is on the board? Would they select someone early – a quarterback, for instance – who they have no intention of using in 2014?

With two extra weeks left before the May 8-10 draft, the Raiders have time to mull things over. You’ll hear plenty about trade prospects and theories regarding who the Raiders favor and who they don’t. Just remember: smokescreens fill the air this time of year. In this case, actions speak far louder than words. Actual selections will say far more about the team’s intentions than anything beforehand.

There are some clues out there that provide insight about this all-important draft, and they don’t come from mock drafts. Throughout this transition out of salary-cap hell, McKenzie has held to his long-term plan, even in the face of criticism and mounting losses. It’s hard to see pressure influencing Allen or McKenzie at this point, even at such a critical juncture.

Everyone knows how important this draft is, both to the improvement of the franchise and the job security of its football decision makers.

The draft is deep, especially in areas of Raiders need. Finding the players who can make quick contributions and have a lasting impact will be imperative. And that’s players. With an ‘S.’