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Barber: Raiders’ rookie class is repairing Jon Gruden’s reputation

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ALAMEDA - I will now write the five most painful words in the lexicon of the sports columnist: I was wrong about something.

I’m just not entirely sure what I was wrong about. I began the year with two related opinions. One was that Jon Gruden is in total control of the Raiders’ roster and personnel decisions. The other was that Jon Gruden is not very good at making roster and personnel decisions.

I had good reason to believe those things. Gruden has always been considered an able practitioner of football Xs and Os, but he has never had a great track record as a talent evaluator. It’s safe to say he made more bad moves than good ones when he ran the Buccaneers from 2002 to 2008.

Gruden drafted defensive end Gaines Adams with the fourth overall pick in 2007, plucked running back Cadillac Williams fifth overall in 2005, selected wide receiver Michael Clayton fifteenth overall in 2004. He overvalued all of them. He won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson at quarterback in his first season in Tampa Bay, a notable achievement, but never found a suitable replacement during his years there. And in his first year back in Oakland, Gruden signed oldies like Derrick Johnson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and traded for Martavis Bryant while shipping out the revered Khalil Mack.

As for Mayock, whom the Raiders hired on the last day of 2018, it was simply hard to believe that a first-time NFL general manager would hold much sway over a head coach who was making $10 million per year.

But if both of those things are true — if Gruden is bad at roster management, and Mayock is strictly a junior partner — how do we explain the Raiders’ celebrated 2019 rookie class? Because for the most part, it is looking very good, with a chance to be great.

And that’s without much production from its two of its first three members. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell, the No. 4 overall selection, has been solid in some ways. He had a 2½-sack game against the Chargers in Week 10. Mostly, though, the Clemson product has failed to stand out. He’s the 2019 Raiders version of the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas in 2017.

Meanwhile, safety Johnathan Abram, a lower-first-round draft choice, tore his rotator cuff in the first game of the season and was lost for the year.

Beyond that, the Class of ’19 has been golden. Running back Josh Jacobs (first round, No. 24 overall) is a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year; he’s currently fourth in the NFL with 923 rushing yards. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen (second round) has assumed a starting position and held his own. Defensive end Maxx Crosby (fourth round) has been an absolute revelation, especially on Sunday when he terrorized the Bengals with four sacks. Tight end Foster Moreau (fourth round) has four touchdowns and an 80-percent catch rate. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow (fifth round) has 250 receiving yards over the past four games.

If Abrams can make an impact next season… if Ferrell can develop into more of a finisher … and if cornerback Isaiah Johnson (fourth round) can find a role as he returns from a head injury as the team believes he can, this could go down as one of the finest draft classes in Raiders history.

And if you throw in undrafted first-year free agents like fullback Alec Ingold, punter A.J. Cole and offensive lineman Andre James, well, the Raiders are getting heavy mileage from their least experienced players.

“We take pride in doing our best to show that we’re not rookies,” Moreau said in the locker room Monday. “Sometimes, ‘rookie’ has a little bit of an inexperience connotation. Obviously, it is. It’s Year Zero for you in the NFL, it’s the base. It’s the ground level. But we’re just having fun as a class, and enjoying in each other’s successes. And having fun winning games.”

Rookies have 14 of the Raiders’ 28 touchdowns in 2019, and 10 of their 25 sacks.

During Gruden’s first stint in Oakland, from 1998 to 2001, he built his offense around seasoned players like Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Charlie Garner. When he got to Tampa Bay in 2002, he inherited a veteran defense powered by John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, all of them 29 or older. Gruden acquired a reputation for preferring vets, and it was only affirmed when the Raiders fielded one of the oldest teams in the NFL in 2018.

But as Gruden pointed out Monday, he has always sought to build through the draft as well.

“There’s a lot of people out there that know that I like veteran players,” he said. “When I went to Tampa Bay, we didn’t have a first-round pick or second-round pick the first two years I got there. When I got here in 1998, we drafted pretty good. We had Jon Ritchie and Charles Woodson and a punter (Shane Lechler), a kicker (Sebastian Janikowski), we had Mo Collins and (Matt) Stinchcomb. We had a lot of guys come in and play as rookies.”

The current situation, in Gruden’s eyes, isn’t much different.

“When we got here, we felt we needed to fix this roster, change the dynamic of the roster, become a 4-3 (defensive alignment) team,” he said. “We had a lot of veteran players in the last year of their contract. We needed to draft. We needed to bring in some young people, correct our salary cap, and do a lot of things. I’ve always taken pride in developing players no matter who they are.”

As Gruden said, he and his coaches are “not really worrying about fourth rounders or seventh rounders or 37-year-olds or 17-year olds or 26-year-old guys. Just play the best player and coach the guys that have earned the right, and that’s kind of the flag that we wave here.”

Moreau referred to “the big happy melting pot of Raider football.”

So which point had I been wrong about? Maybe both, to some extent. People get better at their jobs, and it’s possible Gruden has simply improved as an NFL scout. In his years an ESPN analyst, between Tampa and Oakland Part 2, he had plenty of opportunity to see and gauge talent around the league, to see how it impacts teams’ fortunes.

I also think Mayock has had a much bigger impact on the Raiders’ roster than I had anticipated. The GM’s influence can be seen in the locker-room presence of the Class of ’19. Gruden has long gravitated toward bad boys with talent upside. Mayock is a big advocate of “culture,” and the 2019 slate leans heavily toward overachievers with upstanding reputations. Gruden respects people who work as hard as he does. By all accounts, that describes Mayock.

And so here we are, admiring a Raiders team that has won three straight games to re-enter the playoff picture, largely on the shoulders of rookies. According to Gruden, this is just the start.

“For Raiders fans out there, we do have five of the top 90 picks next year,” the coach reminded. “We plan on adding five more really good players next year.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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