Perhaps no team in the last 15 years has had a greater series of failed drafts than the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders last made the playoffs in 2003 and haven’t had a winning season since, coming closest with an 8-8 record in both 2010 and 2011. With eight top 10 picks since 2004 and very little to show for it, one is left wondering what might have been had management and ownership made some more informed decisions at the draft. Of course hindsight is 20-20, but the beauty of counterfactual thinking is that it allows us to imagine a world in which the errors of the past were corrected. What sort of dynasty might exist if these series of first round failures and botched trades had gone down differently?
Playing the part of a wiser general manager, I undertake the task of redrafting every Raiders first round pick since 2001. Keep in mind, the Raiders were actually quite successful in the early 2000s, with a string of postseason appearances, two AFC Championship games, and their Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay in the 2002-03 season. This makes those picks less disastrous since they fell late in the first round. However, there was still talent available that fell further and I examine just how strong this team could have been.
One final note: the Raiders made a couple of ill-advised trades in 2011 that resulted in no first round picks in either 2011 or 2012. I still examine those years, pointing out some guys that could have been good selections had the Raiders retained those picks, but I make no official selections since the picks didn't exist. This list primarily examines replacement options for players actually drafted by the Raiders, seeking to construct the ultimate Oakland Raiders fantasy roster. Given that the 2015 draft class has yet to prove themselves on the field, we'll leave that group alone and assume that the Raiders' selection of Amari Cooper will pay off. With all that in mind, here are the draft choices that should/could have been.
The Raiders finished the 2000-01 season with a tough loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship game and, with the 28th pick in the first round, selected safety Derrick Gibson out of Florida State. Even at this late spot, Gibson is a bust by most standards. He played five lackluster seasons in Oakland totaling less than 200 tackles and only three interceptions. Drew Brees was available at this spot but the Raiders had their quarterback in MVP winner Rich Gannon.
Even though the Raiders had future hall of famer Tim Brown, adding another wide receiver threat could have supercharged the offense, and this draft class was stacked. While both Steve Smith and Chad Johnson could have been good choices, the obvious pick here is Reggie Wayne, whose career positions him as a likely future hall of famer.
The Raiders lost in the second round to the Patriots in that memorable "Snow Bowl" made famous by the controversial tuck rule call that helped the Patriots tie the game late en route to an overtime victory. Oakland actually had two first round picks in 2002, drafting Miami cornerback Philip Buchanon at no.17 and Northwestern linebacker Napoleon Harris at no.23. Neither were particularly impressive, each only playing in Oakland for three seasons.
The Raiders would advance to the Super Bowl the next season, so the talent was already there. But imagine if they had selected future defensive machine Ed Reed at no.17 and Eagles running back Brian Westbrook at no.23. Reed was a multi Pro Bowler and defensive player of the year over a brilliant 12 year career, mostly with the Ravens. Westbrook likely would have served as backup to Charlie Garner (who had nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards that season) but could have been a key component of the offense for years to come.
Coming off of a rather lopsided Super Bowl loss to former coach Jon Gruden and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Raiders picked at the bottom of the first round, but had both no.31 and no.32. The 31st pick is one I'd repeat, as the Raiders scooped lockdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha who was, in his prime, the best in the game. At no.32, however, they took Colorado defensive end Tylor Brayton, who played five seasons in Oakland but only recorded six total sacks. Umenyiora fell to 56th overall but has 85 career sacks. The Raiders take him here and have an imposing presence on the line for years.
The Raiders seemed to take the negative momentum of their Super Bowl loss into the next season and posted a (tied for) league worst 4-12 record. This set up a high first round pick and began an era of significant drafting errors. With the second overall pick, Oakland selected Iowa offensive lineman Robert Gallery who simply never lived up to the hype. Quarterback Rich Gannon suffered an injury in 2003 and just wasn't the same after, so I go with a quarterback here, in a draft class stacked with future winners. Larry Fitzgerald is a tempting choice, but I've already taken Reggie Wayne in 2001 so we stick with a QB. Manning is off the board at no.1 so the money pick is multiple Super Bowl winner Big Ben. Don't you think he would have made a perfect Raider?
This was another in a (soon-to-be) long line of embarrassing seasons, as the Raiders limped to a 5-11 record. The Raiders traded down, giving their no.7 pick to Minnesota for Randy Moss, who proved largely ineffective and not particularly motivated to succeed in Oakland. With pick no.23 in the 2005 draft they selected cornerback Fabian Washington out of Nebraska. Washington was another cornerback that only spent three years in Oakland (and six total in the NFL) before taking his very average talents elsewhere.
Aaron Rodgers, Roddy White, and Frank Gore were all still available here, but given the makeup of the team I go with the best offensive lineman from this draft class. Mankins was a key leader on the Patriots O-line for nearly a decade and would have done wonders holding the fort for Oakland.
Yet another miserable year for Oakland led to a top ten pick once again. With the no.7 spot, the Raiders took Texas safety Michael Huff. Huff actually played seven seasons in Oakland and showed some flashes of skill but never broke the 100 tackle mark in any single season; not exactly what you want out of a top ten pick. Instead, the Raiders could have had multiple Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ngata, out of Oregon. n nine seasons with Baltimore, Ngata had over 400 tackles and 25 sacks, providing a key run-stopping force in the middle of the field.
It's 2007, and thus we arrive at the worst draft selection in Raiders history and a good argument for the biggest draft bust in NFL history. The Raiders finished a league-worst 2-14 and "earned" the right to the first overall selection. With that pick they opted for size and mobility with LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Russell would promptly put on a significant amount of weight, negating his speed, and would consistently show his inability to make smart decisions on the field.
He started only 25 games in three seasons, posting a 7-18 record before ending his NFL career. Meanwhile, no.2 selection Calvin Johnson would rise to the ranks of top receiver in the league, eclipsing 10,000 yards and reeling in 74 touchdowns in just eight seasons. This is a no-brainer, and a mistake that still leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of Raiders fans everywhere.
Another rather pathetic season for the Raiders (are we noticing a pattern yet?) resulted in yet another top tier draft spot. With the no.4 pick in the 2008 draft, Oakland selected Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. While he has flashed the crazy athletic ability that prompted his high draft spot, his career has been marred by injuries, McFadden has yet to start more than 13 games in any of his seven seasons, totaling just over 6,000 all-purpose yards.
I'll stick with the same position here and simply swap McFadden for East Carolina back Chris Johnson, who has played in all but one game in the same span, amassed nearly 11,000 all-purpose yards, and is a member of the elite "2,000-yard club."
Al Davis' penchant for drafting speed over skill resulted in the selection of Darrius Heyward-Bey with the no.7 pick of the 2009 draft. Heyward-Bey played five seasons in Oakland, never reaching 1,000 receiving yards and totaling only 11 touchdowns. Perhaps instead of taking speed Davis could have opted for stability. University of California center Alex Mack has made he Pro Bowl twice, starting every game for the Browns until being sidelined by injury in 2014. Outstanding offensive linemen are hard to come by, and Mack would be a great value even at the no.7 slot.
Tight ends are rarely drafted in the first round, but with the power of hindsight I doubt many GMs would pass on Gronk at the no.8 spot of the 2010 draft. The Raiders selected linebacker Rolando McClain who never quite played to his potential before changing teams, retiring, then resurrecting his career in Dallas. Gronk is a tough choice here because there was so much talent drafted after McClain.
Oakland could have had safety Earl Thomas, wideouts Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and the list goes on. But with his gaudy numbers and freakish athletic ability, Gronkowski would be a force in a Raiders lineup now stocked with Calvin Johnson and Big Ben. Given Gronk's over-the-top personality off the field, he also would have been a great throwback to the Raiders bad boys of the 70s.
In 2009 the Raiders traded their 2011 first round selection (which ended up being no.17) to the New England Patriots for defensive lineman Richard Seymour. Seymour was good but never great. Had the Raiders not traded this pick away, they would have had the option to draft a number of future top tier players.
The Patriots drafted offensive tackle Nate Solder, who has started 60 of a possible 64 games in New England. Defensive Tackle Muhammad Wilkerson out of Temple, taken 30th that year, has proven to be a solid presence on the Jets’ defensive line, racking up 24.5 sacks in four seasons. If we dig deeper into this draft class we find Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman, who fell to the fifth round. Sure, every team passed on Sherman, but how perfect would someone as hated as Sherman be as a Raider?
Another series of “brilliant” trade decisions left Oakland without a first OR second round pick in 2012. They traded their first pick to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer, a move that may have made more sense had there been any quality receivers on the team. Cincinnati used the no.17 selection to take Dre Kirkpatick, a relatively unsuccessful cornerback. Picks taken later include defensive lineman Chandler Jones and safety Harrison Smith.
The second round pick was sent to New England as part of a 2011 deal that netted the Raiders third and fourth rounders (they became Joseph Barksdale and Taiwan Jones). Even without the second rounder, Jones or Smith could have been critical additions to a porous defense.
Another not-so-hot decision resulted in the Raiders dropping from third overall to 12th via a trade with Miami for their 12th pick and a second rounder. The Raiders then selected cornerback D.J. Hayden out of Houston and tackle Menelik Watson. In two seasons Hayden has yet to play particularly inspired football, and may be in danger of losing his CB1 spot this season. Watson has been productive but just injured himself in preseason and is out for the year.
Sheldon Richardson is tempting here, as is safety Jonathan Cyprien, but I’ll gamble on a productive future from already reliable linebacker Alec Ogletree, who has managed over 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons.
Oakland took a chance on mid-major linebacker Khalil Mack out of Buffalo and the early indications suggest that the move paid off. Mack just received the no.1 ranking in Mel Kiper's top 25 NFL players under age 25, and with Jack Del Rio now at the helm in Oakland, Mack looks to improve his sack numbers from last year and claim his spot as one of the top 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. There really isn't a defensive player better than Mack in the entire 2014 class. Mack should be a force for years to come, and one that could possibly (and finally) change the Raiders' fortune for the better.
As mentioned earlier, we've yet to see how, not just Amari Cooper, but how the entire 2015 class will pan out, so we'll give Cooper the benefit of the doubt here. Cooper was a logical pick for the Raiders, who badly needed to give second-year quarterback Derek Carr a no.1 wideout. There was some debate as to whether the Raiders would take Cooper or Kevin White, or if the Raiders would go o-line to protect Carr.
We'll have to at least see Cooper for one season before we even begin to question the pick. With the Raiders hitting a home run with their 2014 draft, let's hope for the Raiders' sake that they have turned a corner in drafting properly and Cooper goes on to be a star. After all, the NFL is more interesting when the Raiders are good.