Oakland Raiders’ Draft Class Reflects Organization’s Shifting Culture

With the last picks handed in, and Mr. Irrelevant crowned, the 2015 NFL Draft has come to an end. And it’s probably safe to say that a lot of the Oakland Raiders faithful don’t quite know what to make of it. Truth be told, it will likely take a season, perhaps two, before we actually do know what to fully make of it.

But that shouldn’t stop us from discussing it in the meantime, now should it? After all, the draft “experts” and media talking heads have already brought out the knives and are already flaying and carving up the draft performances of every team. So why shouldn’t we join in?

Amari Cooper. Mario Edwards Jr. Clive Walford. Jonathan Feliciano. Ben Heeney. Neiron Ball. Max Valles. Anthony Morris. Andre Debose. Dexter McDonald.

On the surface, this year’s draft class looks to be something of a – well – dud. Just glancing over the ten names that Reggie McKenzie, Jack Del Rio, and the rest of the Raiders’ brass added to the roster, for the most part, it doesn’t seem particularly outstanding.

The 2015 draft class, taken as a whole, doesn’t seem capable of sustaining the momentum that was being built by the players who made up the 2013 and the 2014 draft classes.

But then, for the most part, the entire 2013 draft class, and the 2014 draft class – outside of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack – was largely written off by some of the “experts” and by some fans as reaches, wasted picks, or players who wouldn’t have a tremendous amount of impact in the NFL. Certainly, you’ve heard some variation of all of those, and quite possibly more, when describing most of the Raiders’ draft picks over the last couple of years.

And yet, here we are, and players like Latavius Murray, Mychal Rivera, Sio Moore, Gabe Jackson, Justin Ellis, Travis Carrie, are being talked about as up and coming stars in the NFL. Some of the same “experts” who all but disregarded and laughed off those picks, are now describing those players not as reaches or wasted picks, but as a solid foundation, and building blocks for an Oakland team that is on the rise.

No, this 2015 draft class isn’t the most amazing collection of talent ever assembled. It’s not the most heralded. It’s not the most highly regarded and most of these players were nowhere near the top of anybody’s draft board. And because of that, with the draft now safely in the rear view mirror, most of the “experts” have already written this off as “yet another draft dud from the Raiders.”

While perhaps not the most awe inspiring collection of players ever assembled, this year’s draft class is absolutely reflective of the culture that McKenzie and Del Rio are attempting to instill in Oakland. Neither McKenzie nor Del Rio were the most highly regarded or coveted players coming out of college – Del Rio was a third round pick while McKenzie was a tenth round selection – back when the draft had quite a few more rounds, obviously.

Both men, though perhaps not the most physically gifted on the field, fought, clawed, and scratched their way onto an NFL roster. And stayed there. McKenzie played five years in the league, Del Rio, eleven. Neither man was the best at what they did, but they earned their roster spots with a strong, blue collar work ethic. Neither man was going to let anybody else outwork them, and both were willing to fight for everything they got.

And that is exactly what both men expect from the players on their roster.

January 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Florida State Seminoles defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. (15) defends against the Oregon Ducks in the 2015 Rose Bowl college football game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Since he arrived in Oakland, McKenzie has been working hard to instill that philosophy and that culture into the Raiders. And to that end, he’s filled the roster with players who fit that mold. In Del Rio, he is getting a coach who shares that philosophy, and drives that culture into his teams. He did it with Jacksonville, and he will do it with Oakland.

Del Rio was famous for his “keep chopping wood” mantra. He was famous for being a tough, no-nonsense, blue collar, take no garbage from anybody coach who drove his teams hard. But he was also famous for getting the most out of his players. Del Rio took a collection of middling talent in Jacksonville, and had a modicum of success with them.

In Oakland, he has helped shape a roster that, when compared to his rosters in Jacksonville, seem to be overflowing with talent. If he could turn those Jaguars into a respectable team, what can he do with a Raiders team who seems light years ahead in terms of talent? The sky truly does seem to be the limit for the Raiders under Del Rio’s watch.

But nothing is going to be handed to any of these rookies – or to the veterans in their position group for that matter. And he’s assembled a coaching staff – one of the most collectively experienced staffs in the league – that is a reflection of his values, his work ethic, and his character, who will espouse the same philosophies and drive their players just as hard. Under Del Rio, anybody on the roster when the season opens is there because he earned his spot.

This year’s rookie class isn’t earning overwhelming praise just yet. In fact, it’s earning quite a bit of scorn in some corners. But on a deeper level, these players were brought in because they are talented ballplayers, but more importantly, because they are a good fit with the culture of the team.

McKenzie and Del Rio may not always agree on everything, but they share a common philosophy and vision for this team. They share a work ethic and blue collar sensibility that the Raiders have been missing for quite some time. They are taking the Raiders back to their roots, and are assembling a collection of players with fierce pride, a blue collar work ethic, and a willingness to sacrifice for the team.

The great Raider teams of old weren’t always the most gifted or talented. In fact, they were often the less talented team on the field at any given time. But nobody was going to outwork them. Nobody was going to be more willing to sweat and bleed than them. Nobody was going to be more willing to sacrifice themselves for the team than them.

And as a result, not a lot of teams could beat them.

This year’s draft class may not wow you, but they mesh with the culture McKenzie and Del Rio are instilling. And perhaps most importantly, they will know their roles, and will be important cogs in the machine that will finally right the ship in Oakland.


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