Coming off a 7-9 season in 2019, the Las Vegas Raiders will choose 12th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft — as well as 19th overall, courtesy of the Chicago Bears. Since the draft is conducted in reverse order of the previous season’s finish, the 2020 pick certainly represents an improvement over the 2019 NFL Draft, when the Raiders’ 4-12 record in 2018 “won” them the fourth overall selection.
Until recent years, however, the Raiders have been strangers to the top of the NFL Draft. From about 1963 to 2002, the Raiders were normally playoff contenders, and thus unlikely to land one of the top picks.
On the other hand, in both the team’s early, pre-Al Davis years from 1960 to 1962, and the long drought between Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003 and the 2016 playoff season, double-digit losses and high draft picks were the norm — a trend that has regrettably resumed in the years since 2016.
The end result of decades of success is that the Raiders have “earned” the first overall pick in the draft only twice in team history, and the second selection only twice.
On the other hand, the late Al Davis was always known for taking a chance on a talented player or three who might not have panned out elsewhere, and, as a result, the team has employed numerous No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks made by other teams and acquired through various means.
(Photo of Jim Plunkett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He joined the Raiders in 1978.)
The Raiders’ lone No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft was the infamous JaMarcus Russell, the big, cannon-armed quarterback chosen out of LSU in 2007.
Russell may not have been the best overall prospect in the draft, but he was certainly highly regarded, and quarterback was the Raiders’ major position of need after the disastrous 2006 season that saw an aging Aaron Brooks and an inexperienced Andrew Walter split time under center and combine to go 2-14, throwing only seven touchdowns against 24 interceptions.
While many reports suggested new head coach Lane Kiffin wanted Notre Dame passer Brady Quinn, while Davis demanded the Raiders take the bigger, stronger-armed Russell, it’s not as if either one panned out. (Kiffin would later claim he wanted wide receiver Calvin Johnson, possibly benefiting from 20/20 hindsight.)
Russell was a holdout as a rookie and his career never recovered from the abortive start. By the time the Raiders cut him loose after the 2009 season, he had started for two ineffective seasons in 2008 and 2009, throwing 18 career touchdowns against 23 interceptions. Overweight and dogged by substance-abuse rumors, he never played in the NFL again, though, for nearly a decade, he remained hopeful of a comeback.
Yet, before the Raiders are completely condemned for whiffing on that pick, note as an example the conclusion of the Ourlads’ Scouting Services report on Russell after the 2007 draft, which was certainly not an outlier among scouting reports:
“He has the ability to throw all the deep passes but will need work on all the nuances of quarterback play. He is big, strong, and mobile with a fluid throwing motion. He must also overcome bad decisions he made in games that caused him to be taken out. Talent and tools are unquestioned.”
Ourlads, which gave Russell a first-round grade, had him a shade behind Quinn as the fourth and fifth overall prospects that season. Quinn likewise lasted only three years with the team that picked him 22nd overall, the Cleveland Browns, before bouncing around the NFL for a few years. By the end of his career in 2013, he had started only 20 games and thrown only 12 career touchdowns.
Russell, for all his faults, started 15 games and threw 13 touchdowns in 2008 alone.
The Raiders have had one other No. 1 overall pick in their history, in the American Football League draft of 1962. Coming off a 2-12 season in 1961, Oakland opted for quarterback Roman Gabriel out of North Carolina State. Gabriel, however, was also the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft the same year, and opted to sign with the team that took him there, the Los Angeles Rams. Gabriel enjoyed a 16-year career, throwing 201 career touchdown passes, but never played a down for the Raiders.
Meanwhile, the Raiders have also employed nine No. 1 overall picks who were chosen by other teams. Those players provided mixed results for the Raiders, but primarily served as short-lived, undistinguished starters.
The exception was running back Bo Jackson, chosen first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986. Jackson refused to sign with the woeful Bucs, re-entered the draft and was chosen by the Raiders in the seventh round in 1987. Although the two-sport star spent only partial seasons with the team over the next four years, joining the Los Angeles Raiders at the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season, he was a dynamic running back until suffering a football career-ending injury in the 1990 playoffs. Jackson’s prowess as an All-Star power hitter for the Kansas City Royals, combined with his explosive play with the Raiders, made him one of the most famous athletes of his era.
The other No. 1 overall picks who have played for the Raiders include:
- Carson Palmer, QB, 2003 (Cincinnati Bengals); acquired by trade in 2011, played for Raiders from 2011-12;
- Russell Maryland, DT, 1991 (Dallas Cowboys); signed as unrestricted free agent in 1996, played for Raiders from 1996-99;
- Jeff George, QB, 1990 (Indianapolis Colts); signed as free agent in 1997, played for Raiders from 1997-98;
- Aundray Bruce, LB, 1988 (Atlanta Falcons); signed as Plan B free agent in 1992, played for Raiders from 1992-98;
- John Matuszak, DE, 1973 (Houston Oilers); signed as free agent in 1976, played for Raiders from 1976-82;
- Jim Plunkett, QB, 1971 (New England Patriots); signed as free agent in 1978, played for Raiders from 1978-87;
- Bubba Smith, DE, 1967 (Baltimore Colts); acquired by trade in 1973, played for Raiders in 1973-74;
- Billy Cannon, RB, 1960 (Los Angeles Rams/NFL); acquired by trade in 1964, played for Raiders in 1964-69.
The Raiders also have made the No. 2 overall selection in the NFL Draft twice, once trading up for the pick and once “earning” it by virtue of the league’s second-worst record the previous year.
In 2004, just a couple of years removed from the Super Bowl, the Raiders had fallen far enough in the standings to choose offensive tackle Robert Gallery from Iowa with the second overall pick in the draft. Gallery, who was strong and smart but may have lacked the true mass to play left tackle, eventually moved inside to left guard. Known for his long hair and bushy beard, Gallery did start all but one of the 96 games he played over seven years with the team, but struggled with injuries that eventually shortened his career.
Seven years earlier, in 1997, the Raiders traded up to acquire the No. 2 overall pick. Reports suggested the team had hoped to snag franchise offensive tackle Orlando Pace, but, when Pace went No. 1 overall to the Rams, the Raiders chose defensive tackle Darrell Russell out of Southern California.
Russell, who was only 20 years old when he was selected, was a roller-coaster ride as a player, dominating at a Pro Bowl level at times, both as an end and tackle, but also battling drug problems that eventually led to multiple NFL suspensions and a shortening of his career.
Tragically, Russell died in a high-speed car crash in 2005, at age 29, a couple of years after the suspensions effectively ended his career.
The Raiders have employed five other players who were chosen second overall in the NFL Draft by other teams, again with mixed results. They include:
- Rick Mirer, QB, 1993 (Seattle Seahawks); signed as free agent in 2002, played for Raiders from 2002-03;
- Eric Turner, DB, 1991 (Cleveland Browns); signed as unrestricted free agent in 1997, played for Raiders from 1997-99;
- Eric Dickerson, RB, 1983 (Los Angeles Rams); acquired by trade in 1992, played for Raiders in 1992;
- Mike McCoy, DT, 1970 (Green Bay Packers); acquired by trade in 1977, played for Raiders from 1977-78;
- Bob Brown, OG, 1964 (Philadelphia Eagles/NFL); acquired by trade in 1971, played for Raiders from 1971-73.
Dickerson, who spent only one year with the Raiders before being traded to the Atlanta Falcons — where he finished his career in 1993 — was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. Brown, who concluded his 10-year career with the Raiders, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Sadly, Turner was another Raider who died young, passing away from cancer in 2000 after three seasons as a starting safety in Oakland.
(Editor’s Note: As we work to reboot and redesign the Raiders Research Project for 2020, early-year content may not reflect the final plans for the site in terms of both functionality and content. Please bear with us. ~ Ace)
All photos (except as noted) by Bob Carr Photography; used with permission.