ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Years of poor drafting played a major role in the Oakland Raiders missing the playoffs for 13 straight seasons. Back-to-back productive drafts have Oakland back in position to contend in the AFC West.
General manager Reggie McKenzie will look to follow up on the hauls he had the last two years that added foundation pieces in quarterback Derek Carr, pass rusher Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper with another strong class that can fill some of the few remaining holes on the roster.
McKenzie has struck big the past two years at the top of the draft. Mack is the first Raiders draft pick to earn All-Pro honors since 2003 first-rounder Nnamdi Asomugha, making it at two positions, too.
Carr and Cooper have also shown signs of becoming stars, and Oakland has five other projected starters from the past two draft classes that can lead it out of its more than decade-long despair.
After having glaring needs throughout the roster in his first four drafts as Raiders general manager, McKenzie can easily use his preferred approach of drafting the best available player this year. Oakland has eight selections beginning with the 14th pick overall.
The moves in free agency to sign guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, as well as the decision to keep left tackle Donald Penn leave most of the starting spots filled. The only totally open position at this point is middle linebacker following the offseason release of Curtis Lofton.
Here are some other things to watch in the draft for the Raiders:
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: The one hole the Raiders haven't yet filled in free agency is at middle linebacker. Ben Heeney got some time playing on the inside in place of the ineffective Lofton, but Oakland could use a better option there next season. While defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. often used safety Taylor Mays as a linebacker in passing situations last year, he would prefer to have a three-down player who could be a thumper against the run, while not being a liability in pass coverage.
BACKFIELD BACKUP: While Latavius Murray became the first Raiders running back to top 1,000 yards rushing since Darren McFadden in 2010, he had little help. The only other players to gain even 75 yards on the ground last season were Carr and blocking fullback Jamize Olawale. The wear and tear appeared to take a toll on Murray, whose average yards per carry dropped each quarter from a high of 4.4 in the first to 2.2 in the fourth.
SECONDARY SUPPORT: The additions of Smith and Nelson filled the most glaring openings in the secondary, but that could be a spot Oakland looks to upgrade even more in the draft. With safety Nate Allen's durability a question after missing 11 games with two injuries last season, the Raiders could use another option at safety as insurance, or a slot cornerback to use when opponents go to three- or four- receiver sets. TJ Carrie is versatile enough to be a backup at both spots, but 2013 first-rounder DJ Hayden has struggled at cornerback for his three seasons in the NFL.
RETURN MAN: Oakland once again lacked a big-play threat in the return game and has not had a kickoff returned for a TD since 2011, and a punt since 2008. The Raiders hoped they found their solution when they drafted Andre Debose in the seventh round last season following a stellar college career with five return touchdowns at Florida. But Debose tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason and missed his entire rookie season, leaving his status in doubt.
LUXURY ITEMS: With many fewer holes than in the past, the Raiders could also pounce if a top player at an already strong position happens to fall. They could use a deep-threat receiver to team with Cooper and Michael Crabtree, an additional pass rusher to join Mack, Irvin and Aldon Smith if he returns from suspension in September, or a backup quarterback with Matt McGloin slated to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
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