GM eager to turn around Raiders’ fortunes
Dave Ziegler arrived at 5:30 in the morning and waited outside Radio City Music Hall for hours to secure entry into the 2007 NFL Draft as a fan.
The now Raiders general manager, then in between jobs as a Division III assistant football coach and a high school guidance counselor/assistant coach, wanted to cheer on his boyhood team Cleveland Browns and take in the whole event.
“I sat there and listened to the draft and had that experience myself as a fan before I got into this business,” Ziegler said in a news conference earlier this month. “I think it’s a cool experience. If you love football, the NFL Draft is an exciting thing.”
It’s a good thing the 44-year-old who came to Las Vegas this offseason after nine years in New England enjoys watching the draft, because it appears that will mostly be the extent of his involvement to start this year’s edition. The 2022 NFL Draft begins at 5 p.m. Thursday outside Caesars Forum with the entire first round. The second and third rounds follow beginning at 4 p.m. Friday.
Barring a trade up the draft board, Ziegler won’t make his first pick as a general manager until late in the third round where the Raiders hold the 86th overall selection. Las Vegas traded its first two selections to Green Bay for superstar wide receiver Davante Adams in March.
Mainly because of the acquisition of Adams and a fellow All-Pro in edge rusher Chandler Jones, the start of Ziegler’s tenure has been largely celebrated by fans. But he knows he’ll ultimately be judged by the players he drafts during his tenure in Las Vegas.
And not all fans are as forgiving as Ziegler says he was before his time in the NFL.
“There were some controversial picks over the years with the Browns,” Ziegler said with a laugh. “I never booed though. I’m never that type of fan. I was always glass half-full when the Browns were drafting.”
It’s been difficult for many Raider fans to share the same optimism when it comes to the draft. Reaches and other picks that never panned out — especially at the top of the board — stand among the biggest reasons why the franchise has only managed two winning seasons in the last 20 years.
It’s a problem that’s persisted through several different regimes, to the extent that many were repeating some version of the same joke after the Adams trade: The Raiders don’t need a first-round
pick anyway because they’d find a way to mess it up.
Ziegler has heard the Raider slights and wants to be the one who silences them for once and for all.
“There’s a competitive aspect to that,” he said. “We want to have a great draft. You want to be known as a team that drafts well and develops talent and all those types of things. Whatever round that is, we want to make sure we’re able to do that.”
The Raiders have arguably taken too much heat for recent drafts considering the success they’ve found in later rounds. Three of the best players on last year’s playoff team — edge rusher Maxx Crosby, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and cornerback Nate Hobbs — were Day 3 picks.
Last year’s first-round pick Alex Leatherwood was among the least effective starting offensive linemen in the league, but secondround safety Tre’von Moehrig and third-down linebacker Divine Deablo both eclipsed expectations.
First-round selections are what everyone remembers, however, and it’s difficult to ignore the trend of Las Vegas not getting proper value with those choices. Out of the seven first-round picks taken by the previous power duo of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock, left tackle Kolton Miller, taken 15th overall in 2018, was the only definitive hit.
Josh Jacobs, taken 24th overall in 2019, probably belongs in the category even though that’s a controversially high position to take a running back in the modern-day NFL. It’s also left Ziegler with a tough decision on whether to exercise Jacobs’ costly $8 million fifth-year option.
Undeniable busts taken above their consensus grade over a long period of time — including picks like receiver Darrius HeywardBey at seventh overall in 2009 and cornerback Damon Arnette at 19th overall in 2020 — are what make many suggest the firstround problem is endemic to the Raiders. Late owner Al Davis was notoriously drawn toward speed and risky prospects with high upside, and his son/current owner Mark Davis emphasizes keeping the franchise in the same image.
But Ziegler indirectly disputed that Davis deserves any responsibility for poor drafting in the past when asked about what direction the owner has provided this year.
“Mark lets you do your job,” Ziegler said. “Mark’s very passionate about the Raiders and Mark wants to win football games, which is another very attractive trait of Mark as an owner of a football team. Those are the types of owners that you want to have. I wouldn’t say there’s a directive from Mark.”
The 2022 draft will be the first time since 2017 that the Raiders’ general manager holds authority on the picks. Davis granted Gruden final say on personnel, but new coach Josh McDaniels doesn’t have the same autonomy.
It may be unlikely to matter because Ziegler and McDaniels have worked together for so long — since the latter hired the former with the Denver Broncos in 2010 — that they agree they almost always view and grade players the same way.
There’s been an expectation that Ziegler and McDaniels will institute “the Patriot Way” with the Raiders after years under coach/de facto general manager Bill Belichick. When it comes to the draft, that would mean frequently trading down and acquiring more picks as Belichick has become renowned for in the last 20 years.
But Ziegler and Daniels have turned back suggestions that they’re sure to employ all of the Patriots’ philosophies with the Raiders and have already shown action to support that assertion. Giving up two high picks for an expensive veteran receiver like Adams, for instance, would not be considered a Belichick-ian move.
“We have a few coaches that I’ve worked with before and a few guys that have been in New England, but this is all about what the Raiders are going to do,” McDaniels said at the NFL’s annual league meeting last month. “We’re going to create our own culture.”
That starts with the draft, according to Ziegler, and everything that goes into it including the exhaustive scouting process to identify the right players. It’s been Ziegler and his staff’s biggest collective focus since arriving in Las Vegas.
The 2007 NFL Draft that Ziegler attended was a particularly dark one for the Raiders. They infamously took LSU quarterback Jamarcus Russell No. 1 overall in what some refer to as the biggest bust of all-time. They then traded receiver Randy Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick ahead of the best season of the Hall of Famer’s career.
There’s a lot of haunted history Ziegler is fighting against in his new position, but he’s energized to suit up and change it.
“There’s pressure on wanting to hit on all your draft picks and build a team and hit on every single guy you hit in college free agency and have 15 guys that are contributing for you,” Ziegler said. “That’s not realistic, but that’s the pressure you put on yourself. That’s what you want to accomplish, and we embrace that pressure. We enjoy it. It’s part of the allure, I think, of this profession.”