Oakland Raiders: Not all rebuilding projects are created equally

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders looks on during their NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on November 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders looks on during their NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on November 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Oakland Raiders HC Jon Gruden is full steam ahead with another franchise rebuild and is hoping this time, he can do it the right way.

In addition to handing Jon Gruden $100 million dollars and the keys to the Oakland Raiders entire franchise, owner Mark Davis also handed the head coach a can of gasoline, a book of matches, and his permission to use it at will.

And to this point, the man known as Chucky, has proven to be quite the firebug.

While preaching he was all about winning now and bringing a championship back to Oakland before the team pulls up stakes and heads to the state that just elected a dead pimp to their state Assembly, Gruden was quietly laying the groundwork for a total burn it all down and salt the earth rebuild.

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And with the team floundering from the start of the season, Gruden’s dropped all pretense of even trying to win now. He’s struck those matches and is going full scorched earth on the organization. Nobody is safe right now – not Derek Carr, not Gareon Conley, and especially not Karl Joseph.

Rumor has it, even Carl the cafeteria attendant and Tommy the peanut vendor are on thin ice, but Gruden is hoping for a better return before pulling the trigger on a deal.

So, with the organization now in flaming ruins, where do we go from here?

Quite obviously, the rebuild is on – and has been from day one, regardless of what Gruden has said, and continues to say. But, this is where Gruden can potentially earn that $100 million dollar windfall he got. In his seemingly manic slash and burn frenzy, he has actually put the team in a good position, and on a solid course moving forward – potentially.

Of course, the team has been at this exact same spot before – and in the not too distant past.

When Reggie McKenzie was given the big chair back in 2012, he was tasked with fixing a team that was mired in salary cap hell and had a roster stuffed with fat, bloated contracts – and players who were no longer even pretending that they were trying to earn them.

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And to McKenzie’s credit, he has done a tremendous job of getting the organization out of salary cap hell, getting them onto more stable financial footing, and amassing a fat warchest to lure free agents to the East Bay. McKenzie has done an exceptional job of managing salaries and keeping the team out of financial trouble – and he deserves all the credit in the world for that.

However, when it came to restocking the cupboards with talent, that’s where McKenzie fell woefully short. Aside from a 2014 draft class that netted him Carr, Khalil Mack, and Gabe Jackson, McKenzie has done poor job of identifying and drafting impact players. Worse than that, most of his free agent signings fall in the “dud” rather than “stud,” category as well.

And while McKenzie has been dining out on that successful 2014 class for years now, he’s done little to outfit the team with actual playmakers. For every Derek Carr, there have been ten Jihad Ward‘s. For whatever reason, McKenzie and the team’s scouting department have failed to draft solid talent consistently.

Which makes it somewhat unsurprising to see Gruden acting out his version of The Purge within the organization. McKenzie’s draft picks over the last the last six seasons (as well as many of his free agent signings) – those of them left on the roster anyway – are virtually an endangered species list in their own right.

Yes, it seems that if you’re a McKenzie guy, you’ve got a target on your back and Gruden is playing the role of Big Game Hunter.

However – that’s not to say what Gruden is doing is all bad. In fact, as we look at this whole dumpster fire from a macro perspective – rather than the pain and humiliation of another lost season – there are some definite silver linings to be found.

Essentially, we’re back in the same spot we were in early on in McKenzie’s tenure.

Once he’d cleared the books and had the organization back on solid financial footing, McKenzie started trying to build the roster. Unfortunately for fans everywhere, he proved so inadequate at scouting – and the coaches at player development – the roster that was built with more holes than a pasta strainer.

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Even the 2016 team that went 12-4 and secured their first playoff berth since the last time Gruden scowled his way down the sidelines had fatal flaws all over the place – and they weren’t even as subtle as the one Luke used to blow up the Death Star.

No, since McKenzie has run this franchise, the weaknesses have been legion, and they have been glaring. Pass rush, linebackers, secondary. The defense was bad before McKenzie arrived, and it’s only turned into an even bigger dumpster fire over the course of his tenure.

Yes, part of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Ken Norton Jr., who seems to lack the chops to be a defensive coordinator. And some of the blame goes to Jack Del Rio for sticking with him as long as he did. But, it’s also now on the shoulders of Gruden and his hand-picked DC Paul Guenther.

The lion’s share of the responsibility though, has got to land on the shoulders of McKenzie, who did not draft or sign anybody who’s made this defense one iota better.

However, Gruden has already hit the ground running on the latest rebuild – we just didn’t see it coming until it became too obvious to miss.

We know Gruden is a big, “win in the trenches” kinda guy. That’s no secret. And to that end, he started in this year’s draft by adding Kolton Miller – who has shown flashes of being a dominant tackle – and Brandon Parker – who still needs some work, but could eventually be solid on the right side.

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They’ve still got Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, and Kelechi Osemele who form one of the most physically intimidating and best interior lines in all of football.

On the other side of the ball, Gruden used draft capital on Arden Key, Maurice Hurst, and P.J. Hall. All three obviously need some work – and more importantly, help – but, all three have shown some serious promise. With a few more pieces and a little more experience, this Raiders defensive line could be one of the more ferocious and effective in the league.

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Las Vegas Raiders

So, with both lines looking to be in better shape moving forward, what’s next?

Well, there is the fact that by making so many of the moves that have left us all confounded and infuriated, Gruden has amassed some serious draft capital. Not only that, but he’s also rebuilt that fat warchest McKenzie had at one point, and should roll into next season with nearly $100 million to spend on free agents.

With some quality players in both trenches, a quarterback who seems to be slowly getting better as he gets more used to his offensive system, three first round picks in 2019 (and two more in 2020), and a boatload of cash to throw at free agents, Gruden is sitting very pretty right about now.

As terrible as this season is – and as terrible as many of us believe Gruden knew it was going to be from day one – the Raiders look primed to put together a solid, coehesive unit that performs week in and week out, and will have the potential to deliver far better results.

However, that potential can only be reached if Gruden can draft a better caliber of player than McKenzie has during his run as the team’s GM.

With guys like Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell, Devin White, Deionte Thompson, and Trevon Diggs – all of them blue-chippers and all of them capable of filling areas of desperate need – likely available when the Raiders are on the clock, it’s imperative that Gruden knock it out of the park. This organization cannot afford for him to hit a soft dribbler back to the mound.

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  • And it’s not enough to just hit on one or two guys this year. Gruden is going to have to absolutely nail this entire draft class. Having mortgaged the present by planning for a brighter tomorrow, Gruden is going to have to fulfill that promise by bringing in one of the most effective draft classes he’s ever put together.

    Only by having a crop of rookies who can perform now, and get even better as time goes on, and blending that with savvy, but effective veteran signings, this team could get a lot better a lot sooner than most people believe possible.

    But – it’s going to take some real genius on Gruden’s part to parlay all of these draft picks and the warchest of cash he’s hoarding into something better moving forward. A hell of a lot better than we’ve had in years.

    As he sweeps out a lot of the remaining spare parts leftover from the McKenzie era, it’s clear that Gruden has hit the reset button and is starting anew. It’s clear that he’s building the team in his image, according to his philosophy.

    And that’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

    McKenzie’s way didn’t yield much in terms of wins or success. It didn’t yield much in the way of a roster capable of being competitive year in and year out. It’s looking more and more like 2016 was a fluke – a convergence of events where everything just happened to go right – than a team poised to climb back to actual relevance.

    Which means another approach is needed. Necessary. Yeah, you can keep rearranging all of the deck chairs on the Titanic, or you can toss them all overboard, start fresh, and arrange things correctly from the jump.

    It’s frustrating, it’s tumultuous, and it’s sometimes even disheartening. But, if Gruden can get this right, if he can parlay all of the cap room and draft picks he’s amassed into a better overall team – a team that doesn’t have so many glaring holes and weaknesses – and a team that can be competitive year in and year out, won’t it all be worth it?

    McKenzie did some terrific things during his rebuild. He also did some – well – other things. Gruden has started off doing all the – other – things, and we’ll soon have a chance to see if he can do things better than McKenzie did.

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    Namely, maximizing the value of those first-round draft picks and his warchest of cash.

    Some rebuilds are effective. Some are not. Gruden’s rebuild has the potential to set this franchise up for immediate – and long-term – success. Despite all of the eye rolling and tear-your-hair-out inducing evidence to the contrary, Gruden may actually know what he’s doing.

    If he plays his cards right and is smart about it, he can rebuild in a better, more efficient, and more structurally sound way than McKenzie ever did. And that may actually justify his $100 million dollar deal.