ALAMEDA, Calif. — Jon Gruden has some pointed advice for his new general manager as Mike Mayock approaches his first NFL draft as the Oakland Raiders’ general manager, after years as a draft analyst for NFL Network.
Especially with the Raiders holding so much draft capital.
“Don’t mess it up, dude,” Gruden told Mayock. “I took a lot of slings to get you three first-round picks.”
Indeed, Gruden is still taking flak for last fall’s trades of All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack and Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper that netted Oakland first-round picks from the Chicago Bears (No. 24 overall) and Dallas Cowboys (No. 27) to go with their own pick at No. 4.
But consider: The Raiders are just the fourth team in the past 30 years — the first since the 2001 Rams — to enter draft day with three first-rounders.
Mess it up? Mayock is embracing the challenge.
“You always have to go back to trusting who you are as an evaluator,” said Mayock, who also said his board will be stacked by the end of next week.
Oakland, who finished 4-12 last season and has already added 19 players this offseason, has just three defensive ends on the roster. That’s despite ending the year with a league-low 13 sacks, 17 fewer than anyone other NFL team last season. In fact, six individual players had more sacks than Oakland did as a team.
So how fine is that line between drafting for need and drafting the best player available? As Raiders two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Flores said, if you’re picking in the top 10, you don’t have the luxury of drafting for a specific need because you have needs all over the roster.
“I’m a son of a coach and I know how coaches think, and coaches think need,” Mayock said. “And we’re a coach-driven building; our coaches are highly involved. That’s good. I embrace that. The flip side is, you can’t reach. You’ve got to use some common sense. And that’s what I preach.”
Mayock said that if two players at different positions rank similarly, but one is at a higher position of need, “Great, let’s go get him,” Mayock said.
“But if there’s a discount, a disparity between the two [players], let’s not reach for need because the more you do that, the more you dilute your roster. And that’s a conversation we’ve had a lot.”
In his former job as a TV GM, Mayock would put together a draft board based on “league value” and would share it with general managers across the league.
Now? Raider Nation state secrets are at stake. That’s why other GMs may be trying to get Mayock to slip up and let them know of the Raiders’ draft plans… before he turns the tables.
“I miss just talking ball with you,” Mayock recounted someone telling him recently.
“Yeah, same thing,” Mayock answered. “Who are you going to take?”
Mayock laughed, even as he says he is not worried about his reputation heading into his first draft as a real GM, or about Gruden’s playful jab.
“The way I look at this thing from a how-do-people-perceive-me perspective is a lot of people doubted that anybody could come out of the media and go and be a GM for any team,” Mayock said. “I know that. I get that.
“But at the end of the day, here’s the deal — if we win, everything will be fine. And if we lose, I’ll get fired. And I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Before that day possibly comes, though, there is the April 25-27 draft, in which the Raiders hold eight picks, with half of them coming in the first 35.
The flip side is that Oakland does not have a pick from 36 to 105, missing a lot of what Mayock sees as his sweet spot between 20 and 60.
“Between 24, 27 and 35 we have three awesome opportunities,” Mayock said. “I happen to like 20 through 60. Always have. I think there are a lot of guys that love the game and are safer picks, sometimes, than top-10 picks.
“I’d love to get a couple more picks in there. We’ve got a lot of holes that need to be filled, and I think that’s a really good place to go fishing.”
That would mean the Raiders have to trade to get there. Although they have the capital and flexibility to make moves with those four picks in the top 35, Mayock was noncommittal about dealing two weeks ahead of the draft.
“We have to be ready to pick at 4 and be excited about a player, right?” Mayock said. “Now, we might move up, we might move back. Who knows? We won’t know until draft night. But, if we’re, quote, stuck at 4, we’ve got to be ready to go, and that’s a hell of a lot easier than worrying about all the permutations at 24 and 27 and 35.”
And if the Raiders simply stay put with those first four selections?
“We better get four foundation football players,” Mayock said. “We define foundation as talent and football character. That’s what we want. Guys that love the game. And if we don’t move up or down or anywhere, man, we better get four of those guys.
“We need to be nimble.”