INDIANAPOLIS — It’s entirely fitting they scheduled TV draft analyst-turned-new-Raiders-general-manager Mike Mayock for the lead-off slot of Wednesday’s club executive-coaches interview session at the NFL Scouting Combine, since Oakland essentially owns the top of this year’s draft. The last-place Raiders possess a whopping three first-round picks and four of the draft’s first 35 selections overall. They have their dismal 4-12 finish in 2018, plus controversial trades of Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, to thank for that windfall.
Holding court with a media contingent he used to be a part of when he was the NFL media’s lead draft analyst, Mayock made it clear he doesn’t see Oakland being in the market for a new starting quarterback this year, despite widespread speculation that Derek Carr might be the next Raiders star sent packing via trade. Mayock, still learning the ropes of the duck-and-dodge question-answering style of most NFL executives, was refreshingly straightforward on the topic of Carr’s future in Oakland.
“We’ve got a young quarterback who we think is a franchise quarterback who’s going to be 28 years old in March, so we’re pretty happy with where we are,’’ said Mayock, whose team owns picks No. 4, 24 and 27 in the first round and the fourth pick of the second round, 35th overall. “We feel like we’re pretty good at the quarterback position.
“Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback. Now, do I also believe that it’s a GM and head coach’s job to keep your eyes open to improve any position on the football team? Sure. But I think it’s really difficult to prove over a franchise quarterback like the one we have in our building right now.’’
Sporting a black Raiders polo shirt and a goatee that can truthfully be described as part silver and part black — proving he’s adapting quickly to his new environment — Mayock clearly gets it. He knows how far away Oakland is in terms of legitimate playoff contention in the stacked AFC West, and he can’t emphasize enough how important this entire offseason is for the Jon Gruden-coached Raiders, and not just their three-pick first round.
“We have to hit on them, obviously,’’ said Mayock, of Oakland’s first-round picks. “But what I keep trying to tell our staff, from A to Z, those two seventh-round picks are just as important as the three first-round picks. And the college free-agents we sign just after that are just as important. We’re trying to build a culture, and accountability, and talent, we’re trying to do all these things.
“It’s easy to focus on the three first-round picks, but we need to hit throughout the entire draft. We’ve got 10 picks — that could be more or less at the end of the day — but we’ve got 10 picks and we value all of them. We need to hit on a high, high percentage. We’ve got more needs than I can even tell you about right now, and that means we’ve got to hit everywhere: free agency, the draft, college free agency, everywhere.’’
With all the needs they have, the Raiders have made it known they’re in the market to turn their three first-rounders into a potential bevy of draft capital, perhaps trading downward in a draft that is considered very deep in the opening three rounds. And just because there’s not thought to be a clear-cut marquee quarterback in this year’s draft, that reality won’t affect the Raiders’ trade possibilities at No. 4, Mayock said, predicting teams will be interested in moving up for glamor defensive prospects.
“Obviously quarterbacks drive the process, but I think as we become more and more a pass-driven league, we’re seeing more and more potential trade partners (for players) who can stop the pass, like defensive linemen and corners. I’m hearing more and more from coaches about, ‘Hey, how do we stop the spread offense? Where are the priorities now on defense?’ So I think that conversation is part of it also, not just the quarterbacks.’’
Yeah, Mike, but about those quarterbacks in this year’s draft. How about putting your draft analyst hat back on for a minute and giving us your early read on the likes of Oklahoma’s Tyler Murray, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Missouri’s Drew Lock? (We knew he couldn’t help himself, because as a draft analyst, Mayock was the gold standard of the profession).
“Every year at this time of year there are more questions than answers at the quarterback position,’’ he said. “We had a chance to work with Drew Lock at the Senior Bowl, and boy he gets the ball out quickly. Haskins is a prototypical drop-back guy who’s got all kinds of upside. I think the Oklahoma kid (Murray) is fascinating, like the rest of the league (thinks). It’s kind of ‘Where are we going as a league at the quarterback position? Is he too small? Is he dynamic?’ So we’re all trying to figure him out, and all 32 teams in the league are trying to figure out the entire position.’’
Famously close with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who Mayock once played for as a Giants defensive back, the Raiders general manager is now an AFC competitor. Thus he’s not expecting to get too much inside information from his friend in New England this draft season, as he has in the past.
“He’s been great to me over the years,’’ Mayock said. “But I’m guessing that at this point, as good a relationship as we have, it probably won’t be quite the free exchange of information as in the past.’’
But before the Raiders can challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy, there’s the immediate and daunting task of first becoming relevant in their own division, with the three-time defending champion Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos all ahead of where Oakland stands at the moment. Kansas City and Los Angeles each won 12 games last season, and the Broncos are starting anew with the pairing of first-time head coach Vic Fangio and soon-to-be newly acquired starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who owns a Super Bowl ring this decade.
To that end, Mayock did a smart and intriguing thing once he moved into his new office in Oakland’s team facility in January. He essentially put a bullseye on the rest of the AFC West, making sure he sees it and keeps his eyes on the competition every day.
“Our division, from a playmaker perspective, might put more pressure on a defense than any other division in football,’’ Mayock said. “To the point where in my office, the first thing I had them do was take all the blinds down, and I’ve got an entire wall of just our AFC West (opponents). Their rosters, their practice squads, their depth charts, everything, all up on one wall, with magnetic names. Just to re-enforce for me every day the challenges we have.
“The entire division, when you look at their rosters and depth charts on both sides of the ball, we’ve got a huge challenge ahead of us. We’re very aware of the challenges in our division, they might be the most significant in the league.’’
Mayock was clearly an outside-the-box hire for Gruden and the Mark Davis-owned Raiders, and many were skeptical of the move, perhaps imagining a latter-day Matt Millen fiasco in Oakland, with a football lifer trying to move from the broadcast booth to the front office. But Mayock will be no Millen, of that I’m convinced. He knows what he’s looking for in players, and he also realizes what has been a big part of the problem in Oakland for so long.
“I’ve always believed the biggest dysfunction in NFL buildings is an inability for the coaching staff and the scouting staff to be philosophically on the same page consistently,’’ Mayock said, touting his own track record for having previously established relationships with so many of the Raiders coaches and personnel men he’s now working with, including Gruden. “I can walk into the building day one and know all those coaches and immediately there’s a bond. That’s the biggest thing we’ve been able to do in a couple months, just kind of build that philosophy and really understand there’s really only one way to do things in our building.’’
And one kind of player the Raiders are now seeking, Mayock said, labeling them “a Raiders star,’’ with or without actual stardom being part of the equation.
“Simplistically what we’re looking for is big, fast guys that can run and love the frickin' game of football,’’ he said. “They love it, they’re professional, they show up every day and give you a full day of work and they can’t wait to play and compete on Sunday. That over-simplifies it, but that for us is what a Raiders star is.’’
No longer the self-described “lone wolf’’ watching tape alone by himself all day as a draft analyst, Mayock calls himself “the rookie’’ and relishes being back in the game on the inside of an organization, with “skin in the game’’ and collaborating as part of a team. He talks of recently holding 15 straight days of draft preparation with his coaching, personnel and scouting staffs, 12 hours a day, in a windowless room, and notes the interesting ties that those long hours forged.
“I had (everyone) over to my place on Super Bowl Sunday and we worked from about 6 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, and then went over and sat down and had a beer and ate some barbecue and talked about why those two teams were in the Super Bowl. I can’t wait for the first regular-season game, and I can’t even imagine what that’ll feel like.’’
The Raiders remain light years away from being in the same class as the Patriots and Rams these days, but this year’s draft bounty brings hope and opportunity. For starters, Mayock at least sees the talent gap accurately, and that’s the first meaningful step toward closing it.