Las Vegas Raiders have found NFL draft sweet spot in middle rounds

Las Vegas Raiders have found NFL draft sweet spot in middle rounds

Las Vegas Raiders have found NFL draft sweet spot in middle rounds

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Paul GutierrezESPN Staff Writer Close

  • Covered Oakland Raiders for CSNBayArea.com and Sacramento Bee for eight years
  • Member of Pro Football Writers Association
  • Previously worked at Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sports Illustrated

HENDERSON, Nev. -- While we've already addressed the Las Vegas Raiders' overall draft woes of late -- only six of their 68 draft picks from 2012-19 have been signed to second consecutive contracts and just three of their first-round draft picks since 2005 have been signed to extensions -- there has been a bright spot.

As in ... a silver lining to a decidedly black cloud.

Because for every JaMarcus Russell, Rolando McClain, D.J. Hayden and Gareon Conley as first-round flops, the Raiders have unearthed midround gems such as defensive tackle Justin Ellis, defensive end Maxx Crosby, receiver Hunter Renfrow and cornerback Nate Hobbs.

Call it a certain sweet spot.

And since the Raiders do not have a selection in this year's draft until the third round at No. 86 overall -- the first- and second-round picks went to the Green Bay Packers for receiver Davante Adams -- the challenge for the new regime of general manager Dave Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels is to keep that pluck (luck?) going.

Good thing Ziegler believes this year's draft has quality depth, then, right?

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"I think when you find players in the midrounds that ultimately develop into core contributors for your team, there's a level of pride in finding those guys because ... there's always the kind of the players that have risen to the top for one reason or another," Ziegler said at his recent pre-draft media conference.

"Not that all those players pan out. We know that they don't."

As such, Ellis was taken in the fourth round at No. 107 overall in 2014 by the regime of GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen and played five years for the Raiders. Crosby (fourth round, No. 106 in 2019), Renfrow (fifth round, No. 149 in 2019) and Hobbs (fifth round, No. 167 in 2021) were selected by coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock.

Ellis has continued to produce, having spent the past three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before signing with the New York Giants this spring. Crosby, the defensive MVP of the most recent Pro Bowl, just inked a four-year, $94 million extension with the Raiders on March 11 after racking up 25 sacks in his first three seasons and leading the NFL with 108 total pressures this past season, per Pro Football Focus.

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Renfrow is also in line for a new deal after catching 103 passes in 2021, the second-highest single-season total by a receiver in franchise history behind the 104 receptions Hall of Famer Tim Brown had in 1997. Hobbs was PFF's highest-graded cornerback when lined up in the slot last season with a grade of 81.5.

Yeah, those are foundation pieces, players the Raiders found on Day 3 of the draft.

The New England Patriots also had success with Day 3 finds during Ziegler's time in the Patriots' personnel department. Since he was hired by New England in 2013, the Patriots have found players such as running back James White (fourth round, 2014), defensive end Trey Flowers (fourth round, 2015), guard Shaq Mason (fourth round, 2015), guard Ted Karras (sixth round, 2016), defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. (fourth round, 2017), guard Mike Onwenu (sixth round, 2020) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (fourth round, 2021) on the final day of the draft.

Again, unless the Raiders trade up into the first or second round -- "Always a chance for a trade," Ziegler said with a grin -- his regime will again have to make its hay late in those middle rounds.

And keep this in mind -- Ziegler reiterated McDaniels' philosophy of drafting the best player available, regardless of position.

"I mean, if we draft three [players] in the same position in a row, because they're clearly the three best players when it's our turn to draft, I mean, you make a strength stronger," McDaniels said at the NFL owners meetings last month.

The Raiders' biggest strengths are at the offensive skill positions and their pass-rushers, positions that will be the most sought-after in the early rounds. So perhaps quality players at their biggest positional needs of offensive line and cornerback can still be found in those middle rounds.

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Plug-and-play guys? It worked for Ellis, Crosby, Renfrow and Hobbs, and remember, Ziegler lauded the depth of this draft.

"You're judged on the personnel side by the players that you draft and how well they produce and the types of players that they turn into for the organization," Ziegler said. "And so, there's a competitive aspect of wanting to draft players. You want every single draft pick and every single player that you sign, you want that player to produce and overproduce in an ideal situation.

"Yeah, we want to have a great draft. Sure, you want to be known as a team that drafts well and that develops talent and all those types of things. Whatever round that is, we want to make sure that we're able to do that."