The Cubs of the NFL? How the future became sunny for the Raiders

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It wasn't all too long ago that Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie was a dead man walking. On Nov. 17, 2014, his Raiders were an embarrassing 0-10. They were on their second head coach of the season, with an 0-6 Tony Sparano failing to improve upon the disappointing 8-28 tenure of Dennis Allen. This all came after an offseason during which owner Mark Davis allegedly spiked the big-ticket free-agent signing of Rodger Saffold after the Raiders had already come to terms with the Rams guard. That gaffe inspired one Raiders source to call it, "One of the worst days of my life as a professional."

And then they lost their next 10 games.

But after that 0-10 start, they beat the Chiefs 24-20 on Thursday Night Football. And since that 0-10 start to the 2014 campaign, they've gone 9-10, including a 15-12 upset win over the Broncos in Denver last week. The biggest reason they pulled that victory out was Khalil Mack, the team's best homegrown defensive star since Charles Woodson. Both showed up Sunday: Woodson recovered two fumbles, and Mack decimated the Denver offensive line for a whopping five sacks in an instantly legendary performance.

More than the record, the real reason there's visible light at the end of the BART Coliseum pedestrian bridge for the Raiders is that McKenzie has found the sort of players all great teams need to kick-start their rebuilding projects. The Raiders have the league's most promising young pass-rusher, Mack, who leads the league in sacks with 14. They have a No. 1 wideout in Amari Cooper, even though he went 0-for-8 on targets against the Broncos. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they appear to have a star quarterback in 2014 second-rounder Derek Carr, who has made enormous strides this season.

Beyond those three budding superstars, though, McKenzie has rebuilt the Raiders in a coherent, logical image. There have been missteps, and Oakland is far from a finished product, but there's the promise of a genuinely exciting future for the first time in years. Jack Del Rio's team is all but eliminated from postseason contention this season, given that ESPN's Football Power Index leaves the Raiders with just a 0.4 percent chance of making the postseason, but it's not hard at all to imagine them being a serious force to compete for the AFC West title next season. After a 13-year romp in the playoff wilderness, that would be a welcome return to relevance.

So, how did the Raiders get here? And what can they do to get over the hump next season? Let's run through McKenzie's rebuilding plan, much of which seems pretty clear with the benefit of hindsight:

1. Clear out a horrifically mismanaged salary cap.

In Al Davis' final years, the Raiders ran their cap with all the budgetary foresight of a college freshman. Players like DeAngelo Hall were acquired and signed to above-market extensions, then waived when they inevitably failed to live up to expectations, leaving the Raiders with a perennially unwieldy salary cap.

When McKenzie arrived before the 2012 season, the Raiders were coming off an 8-8 season that was less impressive than their .500 record might indicate, given they had been outscored by 74 points. They were also capped out, having spent nearly $126 million against the $123 million cap during the 2011 season. The Raiders were then more than $30 million over the cap heading into 2012. With a veteran team and limited upside, McKenzie had to make a painful decision.

Over the next two seasons, McKenzie took a scythe to the veteran contracts clogging up Oakland's roster, eating the short-term pain of accelerated cap hits for long-term freedom. The depths he had to plumb may never be repeated by an NFL general manager. His Raiders swallowed $73.9 million in dead money for players removed from the roster over the next two seasons, including a staggering $55.4 million during the 2013 campaign. The Raiders had only 4 during the 2013 season, which would have undoubtedly made them the first team in league history to devote more cap space to players off the roster than the guys who were actually in uniform on Sundays.

McKenzie's insistence on cleaning up the balance sheet dwarfed the rest of the league; not only was that $73.9 million the most dead money racked up by any team over the 2012 and '13 seasons, but the second-place Jaguars were another universe away at $50.4 million. And in many cases, McKenzie was right, as the veterans he let go -- known quantities like Richard Seymour, Stanford Routt, Tommy Kelly and Michael Huff -- are now out of football. (There's one notable exception that we'll get to later.)

Only now, with 2016 approaching, can the Raiders truly begin to see the fruits of McKenzie's efforts in this field. They have $16 million in dead money on this year's cap and $15.1 million in cap space. Next year, the Raiders are ticketed to have a mere $420,000 tied up in dead cap money. They'll be able to carry over that $15.1 million in space and have just $77.4 million committed to the top 51 players on their roster. Even factoring in new deals for Donald Penn, Aldon Smith, J'Marcus Webb and the ageless Woodson, the projected $150 million cap line would leave the Raiders with $75 million or so in cap space this offseason. That figures to be more than anybody else in football.

2. Hoard draft picks.

Just as the Raiders had sacrificed their balance sheet to fruitlessly chase competence, they simultaneously dealt away the one thing that could have gotten them out of cap hell: draft picks. McKenzie inherited a team missing draft assets. Its 2011 first-round pick was missing from the roster, having been dealt to the Patriots for Seymour, with Bill Belichick using the pick to draft franchise left tackle Nate Solder. Later during that same draft, the Raiders sent their 2012 second-rounder to the Patriots for picks near the very end of the third and fourth rounds, which were put to use for Joe Barksdale and Taiwan Jones, the former of whom was cut after one season. (Belichick picked on the Raiders like no other team in football before McKenzie arrived.)

The Raiders followed up by sending their 2012 first-round and 2013 second-round picks to the Bengals to acquire Carson Palmer during the middle of the 2011 campaign. Palmer was acquired to replace Jason Campbell, who the Raiders had picked up by sending a 2012 fourth-rounder to Washington. That left McKenzie without three of his first four picks in the 2012 draft and his second pick in the 2013 draft. Not exactly promising, especially given that the lack of talented players leaving Oakland were going to make it exceedingly difficult for the Raiders to rack up any compensatory picks.

McKenzie comes from Green Bay, where general manager Ted Thompson kicked off his rebuild of the Packers' roster by trading down in 19 of his first 21 draft-pick trades. The vast majority of research suggests that no team is appreciably better at drafting talent than the rest of the league and that the best way for teams to find talent is to accrue as many picks as possible.

It should be no surprise, then, that McKenzie has followed in those footsteps. He has made seven pick-for-pick trades during his four years as Raiders general manager, and in each of those trades, he has dealt down to acquire additional picks. Using Chase Stuart's draft-value estimates, the cumulative impact of those seven trades has been to generate draft capital akin to the 85th overall pick, meaning McKenzie has manufactured a third-round pick out of thin air.

That's the abstract value, but in reality, McKenzie won virtually all of these trades. His biggest trade down was also his best, when he dealt the third overall pick to the Dolphins in 2012 so Miami could grab Dion Jordan. McKenzie's return on the 12th (D.J. Hayden) and 42nd (Menelik Watson) picks hasn't been great, but you would rather have either player than Jordan, who has been suspended for the 2015 season after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Other trades have led him to the likes of Mychal Rivera, Gabe Jackson and Latavius Murray, and the best player McKenzie has missed out on with one of the picks he dealt is probably Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander. He has done well here.

3. Build through the lines.

As much as NFL personnel swear by building from the lines out, very few teams actually put their money where their mouth is. McKenzie's Raiders team is one of the rare exceptions. Although he hasn't invested much in free agency, McKenzie's few dips into those oft-infested waters have been to rebuild on either side of the line of scrimmage.

McKenzie has gone into the free-agent pool repeatedly here to come away with veterans, even if it has meant overpaying. The Buccaneers cut left tackle Donald Penn, and that gave McKenzie his left tackle on a two-year deal. Emerging Jets tackle Austin Howard got a five-year, $30 million deal with the Raiders and moved inside to guard, only to bounce back out to tackle this past offseason. McKenzie attempted to add the aforementioned Saffold, only for that deal to fall through. Then he finished the line this past offseason by giving Chiefs center Rodney Hudson a five-year, $44.5 million deal.

Those three veterans are among the six largest cap hits on the Oakland roster. The second-largest cap hold belongs to nose tackle Dan Williams, signed this offseason from Arizona. A two-year, $11 million deal went to former Giants star Justin Tuck, who failed to live up to his former promise before going down with a torn pectoral muscle at midseason. McKenzie also made a big offer to Jared Allen, who chose the Bears instead. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

You can take issue with some of these moves or doubt the Raiders extracted incredible value -- and that's understandable -- but you can see a coherent plan. McKenzie wanted those offensive linemen in place for the most important part of any rebuilding plan ...

4. Find the right quarterback and don't reach for the wrong one, even if it means some lean years.

Missing high draft picks and finding himself without a clear path to an obviously great option, McKenzie was forced to spend the first two years of his term with the Raiders in an awkward spot. The new general manager inherited Palmer and saw him deliver a relatively anonymous season in 2012, one in which he combined league-average traditional statistics as a 33-year-old with a 25th-place finish in QBR.

McKenzie promptly made the worst trade of his run, foisting Palmer off onto the Cardinals in an April 2013 salary dump for a sixth-round pick and a conditional selection. That trade looks absolutely awful now, for multiple reasons.

Although Palmer has flourished, it would be naive to suggest he would have followed the same upward path in Oakland, especially given how many veteran players have revitalized their careers in Arizona under Bruce Arians. At the time, Palmer was an aging quarterback on a going-nowhere team with an injury history who wasn't playing at an especially high level. McKenzie was probably too quick to dump Palmer for pennies on the dollar, but it's pure hindsight to suggest anybody thought the Raiders GM had an MVP candidate on his hands.

The other reality is the Raiders had no way to find a quarterback in 2013. Look at the group. Not a starter to be found. So McKenzie sent a sixth-round pick in March 2014 to the Texans for Matt Schaub. Schaub was bad in 2013 but one year removed from making the Pro Bowl. That's the sort of risk bad teams should take. Sometimes it leads you to Schaub and Trent Richardson; other times, you end up with Michael Crabtree for peanuts.

Fortunately, McKenzie found a quarterback he liked one month later in the 2014 draft, taking Carr in the second round with the 36th pick. It was a high-risk selection, given quarterbacks taken in the top of the second round often fail to launch, with the likes of Jimmy Clausen, John Beck and Drew Stanton as disappointing recent examples. When Carr outperformed Schaub during August, McKenzie and Allen handed him the starting job.

Carr was truthfully overrated during an underwhelming rookie season. His reputation was buoyed by a couple of very impressive games in front of larger television audiences and an otherworldly (and totally unsustainable) performance in the red zone. There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Carr as a future starter heading into 2015.

Instead, he has passed those tests with flying colors. Carr has taken strides in every facet of his game, making fewer mistakes while executing a far more difficult offense. His numbers are up across the board, with just one weird quirk coloring things. As Stuart noted a week ago, Carr has a bizarre split. He has posted a league-best 111.1 passer rating and 71.3 QBR through the first three quarters of games in 2015, which would make him the seventh-best passer in football if he could just keep it up. Instead, he has been a disaster in the fourth quarter, where he is 32nd among 33 qualifiers by passer rating (62.3) and QBR (17.0).

Carr was far better in the fourth quarter last season than he was over the first three (18th in QBR vs. 31st), so there's little reason to think this is much more than a total fluke. His second season profiles something like Kerry Collins' sophomore campaign, and that might not sound especially impressive, but Collins was a top-five pick who made the Pro Bowl and came one game from the Super Bowl that season before drinking temporarily destroyed his career.

Carr's rookie deal is an incredibly valuable proposition, and a little patience helps. Rebuilding general managers often don't have the chance to find a worthy quarterback. Take John Idzik in New York, who rightfully moved on from Mark Sanchez, cleared out cap space and hoarded draft picks, just like McKenzie. Idzik never had a path to a quarterback and used a second-round pick on Geno Smith as a likely placeholder, only for Smith to struggle and Idzik to promptly lose his job. Idzik got two years; McKenzie is on his fourth.

5. Nail your picks at the top of the first round.

Easier said than done, of course, but McKenzie has come away with two franchise players at the top of the past two drafts. It's impossible to definitively say Mack is the best player out of a draft with Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald, but Mack's five-sack game publicly announced an arrival that occurred sometime last season. Mack is a terror of a pass-rusher, and even that sells short his ability to hold up in coverage and defend against the run. The list of players who accrued 14 or more sacks as second-year guys, as Mack has this season, is all superstars.

Getting Mack was good fortune, and it seems to have happened again. In desperate need of a No. 1 receiver for Carr, the Raiders found one in Cooper, who has been a godsend for his young quarterback, even if he has dropped 9.2 percent of his targets this year. Combining with the resurgent Crabtree and a pair of other young talents in Seth Roberts and Clive Walford, Oakland suddenly has a set of weapons for Carr. Pass-rushers, cornerbacks and wide receivers were the highest-paid positions on the free market this past offseason, and it's no coincidence McKenzie's initial three first-rounders come from those very positions.

6. Find the right coach.

It's harsh to say, but McKenzie probably whiffed on Allen, who is currently trying to pilot the Saints' defense back toward 21st century civilization. I don't know that any coach could have done much with the 2012 and 2013 Raiders, given how much McKenzie was doing to overturn their moribund roster. On the other hand, McKenzie was wise to move on from Sparano even after the former Dolphins coach finished the year 3-3, given how poorly interim coaches have performed after getting the permanent gig.

He then settled on a fine head-coaching candidate in Del Rio, whose nine-year tenure with the Jaguars remains curiously underrated. Del Rio took over a 6-10 team from Tom Coughlin and, after a 5-11 start, went 40-24 over the next four seasons. His Jags teams hovered four games under .500 over the next three seasons but things didn't really go south until 2011, when Del Rio was fired by new owner Shahid Khan after a 3-8 start.

The problem there wasn't Del Rio; it was Blaine Gabbert and the dismal roster compiled by general manager Gene Smith. Despite playing in one of football's worst divisions, the Jags would go 9-39 over the next three seasons before finally beginning to turn things around this year.

After rebuilding his reputation during an excellent run as Denver's defensive coordinator, Del Rio has been an inspired choice for the Raiders. He has exhibited a history of bringing in underperforming and/or unknown players and turning them into solid contributors, a feat he pulled off with Terrance Knighton in Denver. Already this season in Oakland, he has managed to turn around cornerback David Amerson, who has been competent in a meaningful role despite being cut by Washington in September. And homegrown young talents like Mack and Mario Edwards have developed quickly under Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton.

7. Just win, baby.

For all the planning McKenzie has done and the many positive steps his franchise has taken this season, a 6-7 season is hardly going to satisfy Raiders fans. A return to the playoffs would be the only way to propel this organization out of the doldrums it has sat in for a generation. And that's all but out of the question in 2015.

In 2016, though? Why can't the Raiders compete? Their young core of stars should all continue to improve, particularly Cooper, who won't be among the league leaders in drops on a yearly basis. McKenzie will have a full complement of draft picks and more money to spend in free agency than anybody else in football.

Even better, unlike years past, he won't be desperately trying to hawk his wares to past-their-prime veterans and be forced to overpay to even get into negotiations. Players are going to want to come and play with Carr, Cooper, and Mack. The Raiders could very easily come out of free agency with a massive haul; imagine what this team could look like if they brought in Russell Okung, Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, and Kelechi Osemele this offseason. McKenzie could do that without batting an eye or remotely jeopardizing his team's long-term cap situation this offseason.

And realistically, the AFC West could very well be wide-open next year. The Chargers are the fourth-worst team in football and have holes throughout their roster after years of questionable drafts. They seem out of it. It's still entirely unclear who will play quarterback for the Broncos in 2016, and regardless of whether it's Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler or somebody who isn't on the roster, he's unlikely to be as good as Manning was during the 2012 through 2014 seasons. And while the surging Chiefs look like one of the best teams in football, four of their top eight defenders (by snap count) in their third-ranked defense are about to hit unrestricted free agency, including stalwart linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. They'll also get to play a third-place schedule, which could match them up against the Jaguars and Bills while the Broncos have to play, say, the Colts and Patriots.

The two very good teams in the AFC West probably will be worse than they were a year ago. There's every reason to think the Raiders will be better. There are no guarantees in football, but after years of wandering in the wilderness, Raiders fans can finally see a plan coming to fruition. And after defending himself from public gibes and seemingly being on the verge of dismissal for the past two years, so can McKenzie.