Oakland Raiders Draft Decisions Will Show Reggie McKenzie's True Colors

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2013

Apr 11, 2012; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie at press conference at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie needs to get things right in the 2013 NFL draft. That's because McKenzie is building the Raiders in a different way than they were used to under late owner Al Davis.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King quoted McKenzie clearly describing his team-building philosophy:

Yes, and we've talked about that. Remember -- the way I was raised in football, in Green Bay, was not as a big spender in free agency. I hope we continue to draft well, and I hope we can sign our own players, because that's the way I believe you win in this league. You draft, develop and sign your own players.

That approach increases the pressure on a general manager. McKenzie must prove he has a keen eye for pro-ready talent.

He'll have to show he can identify and select what Raiders fans will hope can be the core of a consistently winning team. Everything McKenzie has done during his first two years in Oakland has put the focus on his performance in this draft.

That started with alleviating the crippling salary cap mess left by the old regime. This offseason, McKenzie led a purge of the ageing, overpaid stars who symbolized the stagnation of the Silver and Black.

Quarterback Carson Palmer was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. That deal netted the Raiders a sixth-round draft choice.

What McKenzie did before trading Palmer offered the perfect example of how he's rebuilding the Raiders. The trade for Matt Flynn meant the Raiders were replacing a 33-year-old passer with a 27-year-old.

McKenzie addressed the most important position on the team by acquiring a player six years younger, along with an extra draft pick.

Getting younger and relying on the draft. It's a simple formula, but one designed to protect the Raiders long-term.

Defensive tackle Richard Seymour is still a capable player, but at 33, he's seen his best years. He was released and replaced by 27-year-old Pat Sims and 25-year-old Vance Walker.

So the Raiders are younger at defensive tackle, but are they good enough to dominate? Maybe not, but finding a dominant player is what McKenzie will use the draft for.

Many believe that player will be Sharrif Floyd. All four of NFL.com's latest mock drafts have McKenzie using the third overall pick to select Floyd.

Picking Floyd would show McKenzie is committed to using the draft to fix major team weaknesses. The Raiders have ranked 20th, 29th and 28th in points allowed in each of the last three seasons.

Floyd could help change that. He'd be a sensible pick. However, picking sensibly isn't something the Raiders have specialized in.

They've often wasted picks on players who simply fit an archaic system. That usually meant selecting prospects who fit Davis's love for vertical speed.

McKenzie showed his departure from that thinking when he cut ties with DeMarcus Van Dyke, a speedster the Raiders reached for in 2011.

However, can McKenzie deliver his promise of a bright future for the Raiders? Does he have the expertise to use the draft to its full advantage?

After all, the Raiders have set new standards for drafting ineptitude. As King notes, of their last nine first-round picks, only one is still with the team.

That's running back Darren McFadden and he has yet to fully convince he's the player the Raiders hoped they were getting with the fourth pick in 2008.

McKenzie has to show he can do better. That means finding his best players in the draft. Certainly that appears to be his strategy based on the nature of his moves in free agency.

Additions like Sims and Kaluka Maiava aren't long-term solutions. They're signings that have to be made while the Raiders weather their own personal cap storm.

It's what comes next that will ultimately define McKenzie. He will be judged on what he does with the potential $50 million cap space he's created for next season.

If he's true to his word about building via the draft and safeguarding the Raiders' own talent, McKenzie won't splash the cash on the kind of big bucks buys that put the Raiders in their current plight.

Instead, he'll use the money to secure the youthful core that will ensure the long-term competitiveness of the Raiders. That's assuming McKenzie finds that youthful core in this draft.

The 2013 draft will prove if McKenzie can work the same kind of miracles Ozzie Newsome has done for years with the Baltimore Ravens.

The quality of his selections will show if McKenzie can be a team-builder in the mold of Jimmy Johnson. The Super Bowl-winning coach routinely struck gold in the draft, for both the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

Alternatively, if McKenzie can't deliver, then his quick-fix free agency solutions will just be cheaper versions of the same problems the Raiders had before his arrival.

That is the position McKenzie has put himself in. He's geared everything to how well he performs in the draft.

He's got to prove he can back his strategy with expertise. The Raiders' 2013 draft haul will be a vital part of the proof.