Raiders Identity Crises: Khalil Mack and Derek Carr

The Oakland Raiders have not fielded a team with a record above .500 since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers humiliated them 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII. The team’s record since that loss is a league-worst 53 wins and 123 losses. Yes, even worse than the Detroit Lions, who in that time followed up their historically bad 0-16 season with a 2-14 season and have made five top-two selections in the draft over the same time span. The Raiders have ousted not one, not two, not three, but seven head coaches over this period.

It Gets Better. It gets worse. As if failure to compete weren’t enough, Raiders management has failed to stock the roster with young players to build around, as well. The 2014 draft class is the Raiders’ hope for a better tomorrow. Previously in this series I have focused on later round selections, but for this one I’ll be showcasing 1st-round pick Khalil Mack and 2nd-round pick Derek Carr. These are the two players the Raiders have selected to be the face of the future, so it feels fitting.

 

ROUND 1, PICK 5

Khalil Mack, ER/LB, Buffalo

Khalil Mack rose from complete obscurity, i.e. the University at Buffalo, to being a contender for the #1 overall pick. According to rumors, Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith preferred the star linebacker from the MAC to much-ballyhooed South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The Raiders were fortunate to have a player of Mack’s caliber still available at #5. In a presser on day 1 of the draft, head coach Dennis Allen described Mack as “A-1” and compared him to Von Miller. Both Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie believe he can make an immediate impact, and I’m inclined to agree. As for his measurables, well, all you need to know is that he more or less broke the combine.

Khalil Mack did not hesitate to make his presence known on the field. In the opening game of the 2013 season he attempted to single-handily defeat national championship contender Ohio State in a now-legendary performance. It’s hands-down the single best tape I have ever seen in my (admittedly not very long) history of watching draft prospects. I’ve selected a number of plays from the Ohio State game to showcase Mack’s considerable talents. There are no weaknesses in his tapes worth mentioning, and he displays almost his entire repertoire in the Ohio State game. To see more of Khalil Mack, head to Draft Breakdown.

It is altogether fitting that the University at Buffalo’s mascot is the bull and Ohio State’s uniforms are red. The first play I want to show here is, yes, a bull rush against Colts 2nd-round pick Jack Mewhort. On Mack’s third step, he turns to square his body up with Mewhort’s just before making contact. If you pause the tape at 1:11, you can see that Mack has both of his hands placed inside, and he’s able to use them, along with his bodily force, to temporarily stun the bigger offensive tackle. As a result, Mack forces the quarterback to run around aimlessly and the play almost nets Buffalo a safety. To understand how perfectly executed the play is, take a look at this brief video of James Harrison explaining the speed bull rush. Now watch the Mack play again.

The most impressive part of Mack’s game is his hand placement. A few plays after the previous one, his hand placement allows him to move the right tackle until he gets the quarterback in his sight. From there, he simply tosses the tackle aside and goes in for the sack. Hilariously, Ohio State replaces the right tackle with another player on the very next play. What happens? New blocker, same result. No, Mack doesn’t get a sack this time, but he would have if the play was not a quick three-step drop. Later in the game, from a three-point stance, he collects his second sack on a play around the edge which looks effortless. It isn’t effortless, of course, but that’s the point.

Another detail to Mack’s game which will come in handy in the NFL is how well he jams tight ends and receivers who come in his path. There are two quality examples in this Ohio State game. Just watch this play and this play. If you noticed that on both plays, Mack jams receivers he is not even covering, good for you. It’s this attention to the small details which makes him such a special prospect. Rare athleticism combined with advanced technique is precisely why coach Allen expects Mack to make an immediate impact.

Khalil Mack’s highlights from this game are so extensive (these plays are less than half of his highlights) that I cannot cover them all without writing a considerably longer essay, so let’s stop on one of the best plays from the 2013 college football season. The very first time Ohio State attempts to cut block him, this happens. He neutralizes the cut by expertly shooting his hands down, and on his way back up he snatches the ball for an interception. That’s not enough: Mack then runs 45 yards for a touchdown with some of the fastest players in the nation trying to chase him down. There’s nothing left to say.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 36

Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

When the draft rolled around I fully expected a team such as the Raiders to select Derek Carr in the top 10. Not because I believed the tape merited a high selection, but due to Carr’s considerable physical ability and statistical production. If you need a player for the “passing” part of the NFL’s pass, punt, and kick competition, there are few players who can launch the ball as far as him. (He can pooch punt, too, but again, that’s something more useful for a punt, pass, and kick competition.) He didn’t scramble much at Fresno State, but he ran roughly the same 40 time as scrambling sensation Johnny Manziel at the Combine, and when forced, Carr is able to pick up yards on the ground.

Derek Carr ran a high-pace, quick-strike offense at Fresno State which used a lot of screens and 1-5 yard passes, as you can see on this handy passing chart. Carr mostly has the short game down pat, although his mechanics sometimes lead to poor execution. We’ll be ignoring every such play and looking at the kinds of throws he will be tasked to complete often in the NFL. The short passing game has become a staple of many of the greatest offenses in the league (check out this passing chart), but you have to be able to challenge the entire field in order for defenses to play back and give you the short completion.

The best spot to start looking at Carr is with his aforementioned arm strength. He especially shows off his arm in the game against New Mexico. None of these require any explanation, just kick back and watch in awe of the throws here, here, and here. That’s that, see you at the Hall of Fame induction. Okay, not so fast: New Mexico only won three games last season. Derek Carr’s statistical production was mind-blowing, and his live arm was on full display… and almost all of it against the weakest competition. In the New Mexico game alone, he went 27 for 37 for 522 yards and seven, one two three four five six seven, touchdowns.

How does he perform against the best competition? If the only tape you watched was the bowl game against USC, then you’d come away believing he was undraftable. It’s a disaster from start to finish. Carr overshoots his targets time and time again throughout the game. He doesn’t appear to be on the same page as his receivers, either. It’s not like this game was played a month after the regular season and everyone was rusty; the Las Vegas Bowl took place two weeks after the Mountain West championship game.

Fortunately, Carr has a few salvageable plays in this bowl game. Here you can see him making changes at the line, and the result is a beautiful fade deep downfield to Packers second-round pick Davante Adams. When he takes his time to properly set his feet before releasing the ball, just as in the New Mexico game, it looks easy. Derek Carr has a lot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within him.

You can make a good living with mechanics that come and go; just ask Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, who both recently re-signed contracts with their current teams for mountains of spending money. The ability to connect on throws off your back foot is a nice skill to have, and it looks great when it works, but it needs to be used in very specific circumstances. All too often, the back foot throw looks closer to this (pay no attention to the horrific pass interference call). A key to great quarterback play is having consistent mechanics, and that’s area of Carr’s game which needs the most work.

It’s not difficult to see a great player behind the warts of a player such as Carr. One of my favorite attributes in his game is the trust he shows in his receivers to make plays downfield. Yes, even with all the short passes– Carr threw more than 50 times a game in 2013– he found spots to challenge the defense deep. His overall accuracy should improve with work on his mechanics. He has a very quick release, a laser rocket arm, and by all accounts is a quick learner. As the 36th pick in the draft I thought he was nice value, and I’m still a bit surprised all the top 10 rumors ended up being bunk.

 

THIS IS THE END… ALMOST

In March the Raiders traded a 6th-round pick for Texans long-time starter Matt Schaub as part of their recent tradition of trading draft picks for veteran quarterbacks. They believe he can start for three or four more seasons. He can’t. Anyone who saw Matt Schaub play in 2013 and believes he has a number of seasons left in the tank is fooling themselves to the extreme. Watch this compilation of interceptions from last year if you don’t believe me. He no longer has the arm strength needed to start, and you can only imagine how training camp will look with Schaub’s noodle next to next to Derek Carr’s howitzer. Indeed, the early rumors from OTAs are that Carr may overtake Schaub earlier than the organization anticipated.

Beyond the first two selections, I found continued favor in the Raiders’ draft. Third-round pick Gabe Jackson was among the most pro-ready players in the draft and should start immediately at guard. Zone Reads contributor Needle made a video on Jackson which you can see here. 334-lb. defensive tackle Justin Ellis was selected in the fourth round. I saw some of his tapes a week before the draft and was impressed by his quickness and agility. With another fourth-round pick, Oakland took 6’3″ corner Keith McGill. McGill’s coverage ability against speedy receivers can be shaky, but his height for the position is certainly intriguing. I’ve seen tape of both Travis Carrie and Jonathan Dowling, watching a brief amount during our epic seven-round mock, but I couldn’t tell you much about them without looking at more film. I did think both were draft-worthy in later rounds.

The Raiders, being the Raiders, also signed a bunch of older veterans. Donald Penn, Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Tuck, and Lamar Woodley are among the over-30 players the team added in free agency, while letting younger homegrown talent such as Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston walk away. To be fair, both Veldheer and Houston wanted out, and given the instability and dysfunction within the organization in the past decade, it isn’t hard to figure out why. Until the Raiders show signs of being competently run, I don’t expect talented young players to stick around. For the sake of their fans, we can only hope this 2014 draft class will forge an identity the Raiders have sorely lacked since the Buccaneers sank their franchise in Super Bowl XXXVII.

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