Just like putting together a winning team, the case for winning Executive of the Year is one that saw its beginnings years before. In the case of Reggie McKenzie, his case really opened last season.
Prior to last season, the Raiders were a mess, and McKenzie was highly criticized for his decision making. Some of that criticism was warranted, and perhaps some was not.
What McKenzie did in his first couple seasons on the job was a near complete demolition of the Raiders as we knew them which led to a three-season record of 11-37. But in the fourth year of his four-year contract, things began to come together just as it was supposed to happen all along.
The jettisoning of players began immediately and continued through those first three seasons.
Of the players who were on the team prior to McKenzie’s arrival, just three remain – kicker Sebastian Janikowski, long snapper Jon Condo, and running back/special teamer Taiwan Jones. Continuing with the special teams theme, the only acquisition even from his first year on the job who is still on the team is undrafted punter Marquette King.
Unearthing contributing players who went undrafted has become quite a common thing since McKenzie took over. Early on, it was Rod Streater who came out of nowhere to become the team’s number one receiver. Now, with Derek Carr lost to a broken leg, the team’s playoff hopes rest on the arm of 2013 undrafted quarterback Matt McGloin.
Several key original undrafted players who have made strong contributions to this 12-3 squad include defensive lineman Denico Autry, wide receiver Seth Roberts, and rookie running back Jalen Richard. In fact, there are now more undrafted rookies on the Raiders’ active roster (7) than there are drafted rookies (6).
McKenzie learned to build a team from his time with in Green Bay. The Packers have the most home grown talent in the league every season and it’s no accident they have sustained success.
The foundation of this Raiders team really began to be established in the 2014 with the selections of Khalil Mack and Derek Carr in the first two rounds of the draft. Getting guard Gabe Jackson in the third round also added a strong foundational piece.
With every success story, there is some luck involved. McKenzie took a gamble by not trading up to secure a QB and still got Carr in the second round. Earlier that same offseason, he let left tackle Jared Veldheer walk as a free agent, and had the extreme good fortune that the Buccaneers cut former Pro Bowler and childhood Raiders fan, Donald Penn, who this season at the age of 33 is headed to his second Pro Bowl. Penn protecting Carr’s blindside has been crucial to this team’s success.
While the foundation was in place in 2014, the real work started in 2015. And the turnaround began as well.
That offseason was also the first in which the Raiders spent big money in free agency. And just as McKenzie had done in the previous two offseasons, he sunk the most money into the offensive line.
Making Rodney Hudson the NFL’s highest paid center lured him from division rival Kansas City to Oakland. That was also somewhat of a gamble that paid off, because the team had decided to let Stefen Wisniewski leave as a free agent in the hopes of landing Hudson. They did, and now Hudson and Carr’s center/quarterback relationship is a major key to the team’s success.
Other key additions include tight end Lee Smith, linebacker Malcolm Smith, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree who was signed to a one-year deal and given a long term extension late that season.
All in all, the Raiders had a lot of money to spend and for the most part they got their money’s worth out of those players while being able to front load the deals to avoid future dead money.
“When we’re talking from a foundation standpoint,” McKenzie told Sirius XM NFL radio last week. “young players that can continue to ascend, we have the money situation as far as cap and the contracts they’re under control, so we don’t foresee crashing that way. When you’re talking about [will it] last you gotta think not only physically as far as having good players, but being able to keep them. We think we set ourselves up to where we can keep most of our… you can’t keep them all, but we think we can keep most of our good players, and we’re not going to be hopefully a one-hit wonder.”
One of the biggest additions from 2015 didn’t happen in the offseason. It happened after week two when David Amerson was waived by Washington. It was also another major gamble by McKenzie that had him coming out smelling like a rose after opting not to address a severely deficient cornerback unit either in free agency or the draft, they claimed Amerson off waivers and by the end of the season, he was second in the league in passes defended (29).
After a 7-9 season in 2015 – their best record since before McKenzie took over -- once again, he focused on the offensive line to continue to build the team. With even more money to spend, the Raiders made a shockingly major deal to sign former Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. He was brought in as a guard and paid like a tackle. The $11 million per season he received is $3 million more than the next highest paid guard. He was inserted at left guard, moving Gabe Jackson to right guard.
Osemele was the headliner, but he was followed by several key starters including pass rusher Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith, and safety Reggie Nelson. The re-signing of Nate Allen has proven to be bigger than initially expected since rookie top pick safety Karl Joseph was lost to a toe injury a few weeks ago. Allen has stepped in and the defense hasn’t skipped a beat.
Yet again, one of the biggest additions to the Raiders didn’t happen in the offseason. And once again he last played in Washington. A month into the season they signed Perry Riley Jr off the street and he has filled the glaring need at middle linebacker.
With all this money adding free agents to supplement the drafted players, the Raiders still had yet to reach the salary cap floor. It was not a major thing, but it was money that would not be put to good use if the Raiders didn’t spend it. As of last week, with 7 players headed to the Pro Bowl, the bonuses they received put the Raiders above the 4-year average minimum salary.
Just two seasons ago, the Raiders were a 3-13 squad with little sign they would turn it around. As of now, that turnaround is complete, with a team with a foundation of original players, made strong by strategic free agent acquisitions without mortgaging the future and all key players under contract for several more years, signaling potential for sustained success.
Reggie McKenzie deserves a lot of credit for that.
Where the turnaround really began, however, was with the hiring of head coach Jack Del Rio.