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What's behind Raiders return to relevance

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Levi Damien

The Oakland Raiders have taken the league by surprise, boasting a 2-1 record to start the 2015 NFL Season. After 12 consecutive seasons without posting a winning record, what is the cause this turnaround?

Great teams are built through the NFL Draft, and the reason the Raiders are on the upswing is because they have filled the team with young talent under general manager Reggie McKenzie.

In four years as GM, McKenzie's three first round picks have been D.J. Hayden (2013), Khalil Mack (2014), and Amari Cooper (2015). While Hayden has yet to live up to the hype, Mack and Cooper have had early success.

Cooper leads the league in yards after the catch and is an early candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He is the first Oakland receiver to have back-to-back 100-yard games since Randy Moss did it ten years ago. Even more impressive is that those two performances came against Ravens top cornerback Jimmy Smith and Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.

Khalil Mack has also impressed and as a rookie last season received the second highest grade in the NFL (behind only J.J. Watt) from Pro Football Focus. Mack has already drawn comparisons to Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

"I never played against L.T., so maybe I'm blowing smoke, but I've seen him play and dominate and to me they're comparable types," Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said last week, via the Akron Beacon Journal. "They're both 6-2, 250-ish, lift a house, run a 4.3, destroy people at will. Just look back to what (Mack) did in college. It's amazing he wasn't the No. 1 pick."

Another area McKenzie has found success is the middle rounds (2-4) of the NFL Draft.

The most important positon on an NFL team is the quarterback. One thing many of the top teams in the NFL have in common is an excellent starting quarterback. While it may be too early to call 2014 second round pick Derek Carr their quarterback of the future just yet, he has definitely improved in year two.

Even more impressive than Carr has been left guard Gabe Jackson. The Raiders 2014 third round pick has the highest overall grade (+10.3) and highest run blocking grade (+6.4) of all guards in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Through three games, Jackson has allowed just one quarterback hit.

Two of the key pieces on this team come from the later rounds of the draft.

2013 6th round pick Latavius Murray ranks fifth in the NFL with 248 rushing yards. In an era where more and more teams are shifting towards running back committees (Cowboys, Patriots, Bengals) in order to keep their running backs healthy, Murray has provided the Raiders with a true bell cow running back.

One of the biggest steals in the 2014 NFL Draft was Raiders seventh round pick T.J. Carrie. He emerged as the best cornerback on the Silver and Black in just his rookie year. This season, he is showing signs of true stardom as he shut down A.J. Green in week one and played well against Steve Smith in week two.

Others of note include nose tackle Justin Ellis (4th round) and tight end Mychal Rivera (6th round) who have both been starters. It is also worth noting that rookie 3rd round pick Clive Walford was to be the starting tight end this season until missing most of training camp and preseason with injury. He has an excellent chance to contribute this season.

For the first time in what seems like forever, the Raiders are relevant again. This is no longer a laughable team, this is a team infused with young talent that looks to bring the Raiders back to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.