Back in 2014, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was on an ultra-hot seat. Oaklandhad started the season 0-10, bringing his careerrecord to 8-34. His first choice for head coach, Dennis Allen, had been fired earlier that season. The rumblings were that McKenzie would be next to go.
What a difference twoyears make.
Under McKenzie's leadership, Oakland has turned things around with a major influx of player and coaching talent. The Raiders went 12-4 in 2016 and earned an AFC wild-card playoff berth, their first postseason and winning record since 2002.
For his efforts in helping elevate an iconic-but-moribund franchise to playoff status, McKenzie has been named Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year for 2016. This honor was determined by a vote of McKenzie's peers — NFL team executives.
McKenzie's hope is the Raiders will become a consistent playoff team and Super Bowl contender similar to the franchise with which he began his NFL management career and worked for 18 years: the Green Bay Packers.
McKenzie, a University of Tennessee grad, was hired by Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf as a pro personnel assistant in 1994. McKenzie a couple years prior had finished a seven-year NFL linebackercareer that began in Oakland, where he was drafted in the 10th round in 1985 by longtime Raiders owner/GM Al Davis. McKenzie also played for Phoenix and San Francisco before a one-year stint as an assistant coach at his alma mater.
McKenzie learned the GM ropes from two previous NFL Executive of the Year award winners, Wolf and Ted Thompson. As his skills in player evaluation grew, McKenzie was promoted to Packers director of pro personnel and later became the team's director of football operations. He was a key member of the Green Bay front office when the team won Super Bowls in 1996 and 2010.
Wolf, a former Raiders front office exec under Davis, along with former Raiders coach John Madden, recommended McKenzie to new Raiders owner Mark Davis after his father Al passed away in 2011. McKenzie became the first Raiders GM other than Al Davis since 1963, but he inherited a team with severe salary cap issues and a roster full of high-priced, underperforming players. He also had no first- or second-round picks in his initial draft.
McKenzie purged the roster amid 4-12 seasons in 2012 and 2013. After that dreadful start in 2014, the team's 3-3 finish bought him another season. His proper roster vision of building through the draft and augmenting via free agency and trades started to take shape.
McKenzie's first big step in the right direction was the outstanding 2014 draft. He selected edge player Khalil Mack with the fifth overall pick,then found a gem in quarterback Derek Carr in the second round. The next critical move for McKenzie was the 2015 hiring of Jack Del Rio as head coach. Del Rio, with the aid of a strong group of assistants, helped the team progress to a 7-9 record in his first season.
McKenzie, his scouts (including twin brother Raleigh) and coaches also have done a tremendous job building one of the NFL's best offensive lines, which in 2016contributed to the league's sixth best rushing attackand helped Carr operate a great passing offense.
As all top GMs do, McKenzie has utilized the draft and free agency in the OL quest. He selected right guard Gabe Jackson in the third round of the 2014 draft. He brought in three free agents — left tackle Donald Penn in 2014, center Rodney Hudson in 2015 and right guard Kelechi Osemele last year — and all three were selected to the Pro Bowl last season.
McKenzie’s free agency success rateis impressive, especially in the past two years. Along with Osemele, Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson joined in 2016. So did two more defensive starters in linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith. That was after a great haul in 2015, when wide receiver Michael Crabtree and last year's leading tackler Malcolm Smith joined with Hudson. As for the draft, additionalsuccesses for McKenzie beyond Mack, Carr and Jackson include players such as Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper, starting safety Karl Joseph and tight end Clive Walford.
The Raiders’ 2016 season ended on a sour note after Carr suffered a broken fibula in a Week 16 win over the Colts. Without their star passer and offensive leader, they fell in the season finale at Denver, a loss thatcost them the AFC West title to the Chiefs and the AFC's No. 2 seed (and a home playoff game). With rookie quarterback Connor Cook making his first career start, the Raiders lost, 27-14, to the Texansin the wild-card game.
We bring that up because theresult surely will motivate McKenzie in his efforts to further improve the team. He started that process with 2017free-agent signings ofproductive tight endJared Cook andPro Bowl returnerCordarrelle Patterson.
Free agency also challenges general managers to replace players lost to other teams. McKenziesigned Marshall Newhouse to replace right tackle Menelik Watson, thenJelani Jenkins to step in forMalcolm Smith. Both acquisitions are in their mid- to upper-20s, so McKenzie is bringing in free agents at the right age.
And while the Raiders lost starting running back Latavius Murray in free agency, they have two capablebacks in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, both of whom had higher yards-per-carry averages than Murray last season.
It's always impressivewhen a GM finds good players in the later rounds such as Washington (fifth-rounder last year) and undrafted success stories like Richard. McKenzie also knows there are several top backs in the upcoming draft. Veterans Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch have expressed interest in joining the Raiders, butexpect McKenzie to look in-house and to the draft for running back help.
It's tough to stay on top in the NFL, but with his Green Bay roots, McKenzie understands how to build and maintain a winning team.
There are big challenges ahead. The Raiders might have tonavigate a franchise move to Las Vegas.Major contract extensions for his two superstar players, Carr and Mack, will test McKenzie's salary cap management skills.
But after coming out of the abyss of his first few years on the job, McKenzieshouldbe able to manage.
The future looks bright for the 2016Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year.