The first three rounds of the NFL draft usually earn the most attention. That’s when the familiar names and big “numbers guys”—meaning players who look really good on paper—get picked up by teams that have done their homework and have wrestled with trades and money to attain them.
But as Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable said Friday night after the conclusion of these rounds, this was a deep draft. And even with the recognizable names gone, the number of high-caliber athletes still on the table by Saturday morning made the remainder of the draft as strategically competitive as any in recent years.
Media and Raider fans alike believe this year’s draft, unlike past years, was exceptionally strong, with highlights that include a star collegiate defensive signal-caller with leadership skills, as well as top notch interceptors and tacklers. Scouts, coaches, general managers and owners are not always on the same page, and it remains a mystery to outsiders as to who really has the most heavily weighted say in choosing young talent in the draft. But organizations still have to take into account their position in line and have a reasonable set of backup plans and strategic moves in their pockets to come away from the draft having significantly improved their team.
The Raiders, who have had nothing but losing seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance in 2002, have struggled during the draft over the last 8 years. Of the 49 players drafted in the past seven years, only two have come onto the field as starters, and 13 have fled. With quarterback JaMarcus Russell playing so far below par that he had to be benched during the regular season, and the defense’s complete inability to stop the run, there were more holes to fill in this year’s draft than arguably ever before.
In that respect, Al Davis came away this year with a pretty well-dealt hand for the upcoming season. Elite athletes were available, and deals made in earlier rounds gave them more opportunities—for example, two fourth-round picks instead of one—to create the new foundation they will try to build on to become a playoff team in 2010.
“We can walk out of the building today and say we improved,” said head coach Tom Cable at the conclusion of the draft. “It’s not trying to be positive, it’s real. Anyone who knows this game and the draft knows we walked out a better football team. It’s time to build that football team now.”
Word spread as early as the first round that the Raiders were in talks with offensive tackle and guard Bruce Campbell, from the University of Maryland. One of the fastest linemen at the combine, Campbell ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash. In 2008, the Terrapins coaching staff had Campbell play left tackle for the remaining seven games of the season, when teammate Scott Burley moved to the right side of the field. In those seven games Campbell recorded 48 knockdowns and six touchdown-resulting blocks. He has bench-pressed 490 lbs., the second-best in school history. So when Campbell was still available as late as the fourth round, the Raiders finally gave up the wait and drafted him.
“We got him where he fit,” Cable said, when asked to explain the wait. “The feeling in the room was that the draft kept coming to us and when he was there it was pretty much a no-brainer. It gave us some more depth and competition at the offensive line.”
Campbell has yet to prove how his physical ability will translate to technical skill when put to the NFL test. But more importantly, he will have to overcome the stigma of having been drafted in one of the later rounds.
“I always feel like I have something to prove ever since the combine, where they just said I was a workout warrior,” said Campbell to the assembled press in a phone interview. “All that stuff is good, but I am actually a good football player, so now I can prove that to everyone, thanks to the Raiders.”
Also in the fourth round, the Raiders selected Jacoby Ford, a wide receiver and return specialist from the Clemson Tigers. During college, Ford juggled both track and football and was the NCAA 2008-09 60-meters indoor champion. Participating in track and football may have been a strain on Ford, but inevitably left him well- conditioned; he has the ability to outrun many NFL defenders.
Ford spent a year at the Fork Union Military Academy, which hosts its own college combine. While he was there, Ford clocked a 4.126 in the 40-yard dash, the best time of any player coming out of that program. Ford did not become full-time starter at Clemson until his senior year, when he led the team with 56 catches and six touchdowns. On special teams, Ford averaged 19.3 yards as a kick-off returner, 11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
Warren McFadden, cornerback from Auburn University, was the team’s fifth-round pick. McFadden is an interception specialist. Three of the nine he made during his career he ran back for touchdowns; he also broke a school record with a 100-yard return at the 2010 Outback Bowl versus Northwestern. His first interception return came in 2007, when he ran 93 yards for a touchdown—the fourth-longest interception return in school history. AS A Fifth-year senior, McFadden finished third in interceptions in the SEC, with two of his six returned for TDs.
Cable said the organization was really “geeked about” McFadden in Saturday’s rounds, because it was assumed he would go earlier. Because of McFadden’s experience and strengths in college, Cable said he believes the Auburn graduate will be able to step onto the field opening day and begin to help out immediately.
Another new player expected to fulfill a starting role is Travis Goethel, a linebacker from Arizona State. The California native played all 50 games of 4-year career, with 41 starts. He accumulated 228 tackles (143 solo) and excels in protecting the run. Goethel plays strong side and accomplished four or more tackles in the last eight games of the 2009 season. He forced three fumbles and three interceptions.
The home stretch: the Raiders first seventh-round pick was Jeremy Ware, from Michigan State. As well as playing a cornerback in man-coverage, which will prepare him for the Raiders defensive scheme, Cable believes Ware can also help on special teams.
“I liked him at corner at Michigan State, and he’s also a guy that’s good at playing a gunner in special teams,” said Cable. “He’s a jammer on the punt return team but he can play man coverage.”
The long haul ended with the University of Michigan’s Stevie Brown, yet another defensive back. With the Michigan Wolverines, Brown accumulated experience at both linebacker—batting down 11 passes and intercepted four—and special teams, with 31 career special teams tackles.
The universal response from the media was extremely positive. It’s been years since analysts have approved of Al Davis’ decisions. The important thing to watch is how well the offensive linemen drafted will be at protecting new quarterback Jason Campbell.
The Raiders traded for Campbell, who is coming from the Redskins. A veteran quarterback, Campbell has had little chance to excel because of an easily collapsible O-line in Washington. But he has the potential to come into his own if he is given more time in the pocket.
The Raiders did have to suffer one somber moment when they traded away veteran linebacker Kirk Morrison, who has been with the team for six seasons.
“Parting with guys in this business is tough sometimes,” Cable said. “He’s a tough one but at the same time he’ll do well in Jacksonville. It’s just business.”
Part I: Rounds 1 through 3