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On the clock: McKenzie, Raiders have more to work with this year

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By Michael Wagaman

The Raiders traditionally have been pretty easy to figure out when it came to the draft. All it took was a stopwatch, a look at the 40-times from the NFL Scouting Combine, and you could pretty much do the math from there.

Late owner Al Davis loved to take the fastest players he could find, believing (rightfully so) that it was a trait that couldn’t be taught and was therefore even more valuable. 

But the days of the franchise’s fascination with speed are over, and the pressure is on GM Reggie McKenzie to come up big in the draft after Oakland finished 4-12 in his first season after taking over control of football operations a few months following the passing of Davis in October 2011.

McKenzie spent much of his first year on the job reorganizing the front office. He made sweeping changes in the scouting department and brought in longtime Green Bay scout Shaun Herock to be Oakland’s director of college scouting. McKenzie also modernized the Raiders’ war room with subtle but needed technological changes.

Yet, this will mark McKenzie’s first real opportunity to make an impact on the Raiders through the draft. McKenzie, the former director of player personnel for Green Bay, had only a handful of picks in 2012, none in the first two rounds thanks to questionable trades, including the infamous deal for QB Carson Palmer engineered by former head coach Hue Jackson.

Oakland, which sent its first-round pick in 2012 to Cincinnati to acquire Palmer, is still paying for the trade. The Raiders also shipped their second-round selection this year to the Bengals to finish the deal for the then-32-year-old quarterback, making it even more imperative McKenzie hits a home run when he goes on the clock with the third overall pick in April.

McKenzie also had to overcome a bloated payroll and talent-thin roster in his first season with the Raiders, though Mark Davis — who hired McKenzie as his first official act as owner — made it clear he didn’t see those as excuses for the team’s performances on the field in 2012.

Drafting a player the franchise can begin to build around would be a good start to easing many of the concerns in Oakland, where the team hasn’t had a winning season since 2002.

Part of that is because, for the past decade, the Raiders have done poorly when drafting in the first round despite picking in the top 10 six times during that stretch. Can anyone forget the QB JaMarcus Russell disaster of 2007, when Oakland selected Russell, who is out of the league, with the first overall pick?

McKenzie, who worked side by side with the likes of Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson while helping build the Packers into perennial contenders, can’t afford to miss that badly.

The Raiders have a laundry list of problems and only six picks in this year’s draft. They could acquire a few more should McKenzie decide to trade down in the first round, or if the decision is made to trade RB Darren McFadden, although that seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, both options can’t be ruled out. Although McKenzie has said in the past that he’s reticent to trade away draft picks, he could be tempted to move out of the third spot if he’s able to acquire two or three lower picks in return. And although the recent decision by head coach Dennis Allen to fire offensive coordinator Greg Knapp bodes well for McFadden returning next season, no one on the roster can feel too secure after a four-win season.

If Oakland opts to hold on to its first-round pick, the challenge for McKenzie becomes deciding which hole needs filling first.

The Raiders desperately need a pass rusher and also have glaring needs at cornerback, middle linebacker and on both the offensive and defensive lines. They could use some help at receiver, too, though that’s not nearly as high on the pecking order as the others.

Depending on which way he decides to go, McKenzie should have plenty of options to choose from.

Utah NT Star Lotulelei has been mentioned most prominently in connection with Oakland and would provide the Raiders with an anchor for their defensive line, something that was missing this season after Richard Seymour went down with knee and hamstring injuries.

Seymour and fellow DT Tommy Kelly both could depart in the offseason. That would then likely make Lotulelei the front-runner if he’s still available when Oakland picks third.

LB Jarvis Jones of Georgia and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o of Notre Dame are two intriguing prospects that could get considerably more attention from the Raiders if the team decides to part ways with troubled MLB Rolando McClain. McClain, the eighth overall pick in 2010, has been a bust on the field, was suspended for two games following an argument with Allen during practice this season, and was recently arrested for the second time in 13 months, this time for allegedly giving a false name to police in Alabama after being pulled over for having tinted windows.

Then again, given the problems and lack of depth at cornerback, McKenzie might be tempted to go after Alabama’s Dee Milliner or Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State.

Allen, who along with his assistants will coach the North squad at the Senior Bowl, believes the Raiders already have a good feel for who they want.

“I do know that we have some guys that are going to be the core of what we want and the type of players that we want,” Allen said. “I also know that we’ve got some work to do this offseason to get more of those types of players.

“I think we have a clear idea of what type of player that we’re looking for in building this team for the future.”

Raiders’ top 3 needs

1. Defensive tackle: The Raiders recorded just 25 sacks in 2012 — only one team recorded fewer sacks. Finding someone who can collapse the pocket and provide a steady pass rush has to be atop GM Reggie McKenzie’s priority list.

2. Cornerback: Injuries wreaked havoc on Oakland’s secondary, but that was only part of the problem. Average front-line starters and little depth were bigger issues that were exposed. Because there isn’t much out there in free agency, building up the pass defense through the draft might be a better choice.

3. Middle linebacker: Without a true playmaker in the middle of the defense, the Raiders have been unable to solve their problems stopping the run. Rolando McClain was supposed to be that centerpiece but his lack of production and repeated issues off the field make it a near certainty he won’t be back for the 2013 season.

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