Jon Gruden, Raiders willing to gamble on high-upside players

NFL Draft, Oakland Raiders

After saying he wanted to bring the ’90s back, Jon Gruden’s first draft has been marked by taking home run swings on unpolished athletes with upside and risky picks. What can we make of these mixed messages?

For a guy who would rather be using a flip phone than an iPhone X, Jon Gruden’s first draft has mirrored his new home in the Bay Area: don’t be afraid of risk because the reward could be worth it.

Gruden sure looked like a guy who understands the long game, willing to bet big on a host of risky, unfinished products in his first NFL draft at the helm of the Oakland Raiders. First, it was UCLA tackle Kolton Miller, a 6-foot-9 freak athlete who must get stronger and much better as a technician before he can be a reliable NFL starter.

In short, it’s a high-upside play.

The same kind of criticisms, or at least concerns, follow their second-round pick Brandon Parker out of North Carolina A&T. At 6-foot-8, 305 lbs, Parker has the size teams look for but not the polish or the experience against top level competition. At the 65th pick, he was already a reach, but to take a player in the second round who needs this much work before he can be a contributor shows Gruden’s willingness to take the long view.

Most coaches lack the runway Gruden will have on his massive 10-year $100 million contract. He doesn’t have to find guys who can play in Year 1. He can worry about what they’re like in Year 3 or Year 4. And though Gruden isn’t technically in charge of the front office—that’s still theoretically Reggie McKenzie— Mark Davis didn’t bring Gruden back to not call the shots.

The question now is whether that’s a better strategy than any other. It reveals an ugly truth in the NFL draft about the way franchises view draft picks. Often, teams prioritize NFL readiness because they understand their jobs are on the line. They don’t have even two or three years to have these players develop, much less 10.

It’s possible the Raiders, signing their man to a decade-long deal, become disruptors in the team-building space, making their neighbors in Silicon Valley proud.

If teams don’t have to worry about immediate impact, does it free them up to evaluate and pick players with long-term value and take the time to actually care about their development? We certainly don’t know that’s what the Raiders are doing, but the dots connect.

We may not even fairly call a player like Arden Key, Oakland’s third-round selection out of LSU, a “boom-or-bust” player because we know the risks. If we know going in a player needs time, needs coaching, and needs to learn the game, can he really be considered a bust? The Raiders appear to be going into this with clear eyes about what they’re getting from these picks.

That doesn’t mean they’re doing this the right way. Trading a top-100 pick for Martavis Bryant taken in conjunction with these other picks could simply signal a willingness (or perhaps a desire) to gamble on talent. That, in itself, isn’t new, and definitely not new to the Raiders.

We definitely saw that trait again in the fifth round, with the selection of Maurice Hurst. Many believe that Hurst, who dropped because of a heart condition, could have been a first-round talent.  Only time will tell if the medical issues hold him back.

Scoffing at these picks, and many have, would be easy, but let’s not deny the potential outcomes here. Key terrorized the SEC in 2016 before struggling with his weight and a substance abuse issue. If he returns to that guy, gets his head on straight, and reaches his athletic potential, he could be an impact pass rusher.

Miller and Parker each have outstanding upside and boast the athletic tools capable of being bookend tackles in the league for 10 years if they can improve their technique and add strength, each of which are possible as they get older, get coached, and have NFL training.

Right now, this draft looks like a mess. And in three or four years, it may still be a mess. But don’t accuse the Raiders draft of reflecting Gruden’s seemingly retrograde view of the game. This is a forward-thinking draft and if they hit on some of these freaky athletes, could change the paradigm in the way teams set job security. Are the Raiders disruptors or just taking a risk to capture former glory?

We won’t know for a few years if they’re Twitter or H.P.

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